By Karen Gutierrez
The Cincinnati Enquirer
EDGEWOOD - Worried about the health of her students, a high-school principal in Northern Kentucky took a dramatic step last week: She had the school's last soda machine hauled away.
Now only water, juice, milk and power drinks are available at Dixie Heights High School, which is on the forefront of a national trend. Across Greater Cincinnati and beyond, schools are beginning to cut back on junk-food favorites.
"Are you serious?" exclaimed Katie Mayes, a freshman at Dixie Heights, when she tried to buy her customary caffeine jolt at 8 a.m. last week. "I'm dead. I'm not even going to be able to stay up for my classes."
Principal Kim Banta was unapologetic.
"Twenty-six grams of sugar is not healthy," she told Katie firmly.
Neither are cupcakes, doughnuts, sugar-coated cereals or potato chips. All such items are under more scrutiny as food-service directors respond to alarming statistics about child health.
About 14 percent of American youths ages 6 to 19 are seriously overweight, a figure that has nearly tripled in 20 years, the U.S. surgeon general says.
Among recent action in Greater Cincinnati:
This fall, Sycamore schools quietly stopped serving a la carte items such as dried-fruit rolls, cupcakes, doughnuts and sugary cereals, including Lucky Charms and Fruit Loops.
Chocolate-chip cookies shrunk in size from 21/2 ounces to 1 ounce, and the "super-sizing" of meals in the junior and senior high schools was discontinued.
Batavia schools last year dropped sugary juice drinks such as Hawaiian Punch from cafeteria offerings, replacing them with machines selling flavored milks.
Over the last three years, Cincinnati Country Day School in Indian Hill has stopped serving sodas at lunch and gotten rid of all soda and snack vending machines.
Beginning this month, at least three of the six elementary schools in Campbell County stopped offering doughnuts and Pop-Tarts at breakfast, and other schools soon may follow.
After Christmas break, the 19 schools in the Kenton County district will no longer sell fatty, sugary items such as Hostess snack cakes and powdered and chocolate doughnuts in their cafeterias. Baked potato chips and Doritos will replace fried versions.
"I think this year I've gotten more calls from parents with menu questions because their children have been diagnosed with diabetes, which really made me stop and think," says Kenton County Food Service Director Ginger Gray.
Type 2 diabetes is related to obesity. Once a medical rarity in children, it now accounts for up to half of all the new diabetes cases diagnosed in children each year, health organizations say.
In the face of such evidence, dropping junk food from schools might seem like a no-brainer. But it's not so easy.
Food-service programs are expected to be self-supporting, so they're under pressure to appeal to young customers.
As for vending machines, schools typically make arrangements to share the profits with operators, and many come to depend on that revenue.
At Campbell County High School, for instance, soda machines bring in as much as $15,000 a year for the marching band and sports programs, Principal Anthony Strong says.
He limits student access to after school, but giving up the machines altogether would be tough, he says.
In the Sycamore Community School District, however, this year's menu changes haven't hurt revenue so far, says child nutrition director Barbara Duncan.
Besides dropping snack foods in response to parent concerns, she's offering more fresh fruits and vegetables.
"I think kids will choose what's there," Duncan says.
Kim Banta hopes so. At Dixie Heights High School, she has now replaced all soda machines with ones selling only bottled water, juices or milk.
She also has given her snack-machine supplier a list of items that meet her nutritional requirements, such as Baked Lays and "those pretzel things," as she puts it.
"He had a conniption," Banta says of her supplier's reaction. "He did not care for that at all."
Students have mixed feelings. Some are athletes who would rather eat healthily, anyway. Others entered a brief period of mourning last week.
"It's kind of depressing," said freshman Kara DeLost. "Teen-agers like their soda."
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