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TALLAHASSEE (CBS4) — Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said Wednesday he may shut down or restrict the use of vending machines in public schools in response to what he says is a public health epidemic of obesity that left unchecked will cost the state millions in health care costs.
Speaking to reporters, Putnam said he hopes Gov. Rick Scott will assist him in that endeavor by signing into law a proposal (SB 1312) to transfer the oversight of school nutritional programs to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The bill was passed by both chambers but has yet to be presented to Gov. Scott.
With obesity on the rise, Putnam believes the bill will give him the authority to place tighter constraints on what schools offer students to eat and drink. Such oversight includes school lunch menus and private vending companies that vie for access to the relatively captive audience.
“I’m not opposed to doing what it takes to improve the quality and nutritional value of what our kids have to eat, recognizing that the policy for a high school student would be different than for an elementary school student,” Putnam said.
Putnam’s biggest challenge may be the schools themselves. Vending machines and fast food vendors have become increasingly common on school campuses as administrators have come to rely on the revenue they bring in and their ability to keep students on campus during the busy lunch period.
“We applaud and support the commissioner’s efforts in terms of improving nutritional offerings on school campuses and welcome the opportunity to work with him,” said Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee and CEO of the Florida Association of School District Superintendents. “What complicates this issue is that in many school districts, the machines have for years been revenue generators.”
Putnam said he plans to take aim at vending machines that now compete with more nutritional options by restricting what types of food those machines can offer or allowing them to be used only during part of the day.
The commissioner, however, said he’s not inclined to shut them down completely.
“Before I come in here swinging a big axe saying I’m going to ban this or I’m going to ban that, I’m going to start by saying it is my personal commitment that we will improve the number of servings of fresh fruits and vegetables that these kids have and the nutritional value of that meal,” he said.
Putnam said the vending machine issue is just the first in a series of initiatives to make school a healthy place. He may also seek changes from fast-food companies that provide food to students on campus in an attempt to curb an increase in overweight kids.
In 2008, 17 percent of American children between the ages of 6 and 19 were obese, triple the rate in 1976, according to a 2010 study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Children and adolescents, the CDC found, are more likely to develop obesity-related diseases, such as Type 2 diabetes, which used to be limited to adults. Another study of five to 17-year-olds found that 70% of obese children had at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease and 39% had at least two risk factors.
One factor, the CDC noted, is the availability of sugar-laden snacks on school campuses. One study of high school students found that in 2006 18 percent of students could purchase fruits and vegetables on campus while 77 percent could buy sodas or other fruit juices that contained added sugar. Half of students could by candy as well.
But those Cokes, M&Ms and other products are money makers for cash strapped school districts. Across the state, school principals use the proceeds to pay for a host of items from clothing assistance for low income students to field trips and other activities for which state dollars cannot be used.
Montford acknowledged a little embarrassment that schools rely on nickels and dimes from vending machines to make ends meet, but said that was reality.
Putnam, however, said he’s confident he can find a middle ground.
“There is a way to skin that cat where kids have options that are healthier options and school districts still have vending revenue opportunities but not from selling solely those things that aren’t as smart a dietary choice.” Putnam said.
(©2011 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.)