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The weight of our kids
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Duluth middle schoolers are exposed to dozens of activities, like kayaking, wall climbing, and downhill skiing. Parents find that today's phy ed isn't just dodgeball anymore. (MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher)
There's a growing crisis among America's children. Recent studies agree that young people are heavier than ever. Three times more kids are considered overweight than 20 years ago. Students used to get a lot more exercise in school but school officials say they don't have the time or money for recommended physical education. Meanwhile, kids can find plenty of calories right on school property, from the lunchroom to the vending machines.

Duluth, Minn. — The gym at Duluth's Morgan Park Middle School resonates, with booming volleyballs and excited young voices.

The gym is divided into two courts -- each filled with eighth graders. Several clearly weigh too much. In fact, more than 70 percent of Duluth school kids are not physically fit. Only one-third of the city's sixth graders passed a basic physical test. Phy ed teacher Jim Milner wonders if people have become afraid of activity.

"Parents don't let them climb the trees anymore. We don't go do pull (ups), you know. You don't go climb ropes, cargo nets, anything like that," says Milner. "You look here, we don't even have one climbing rope ... Our kids -- one of the weakest parts of the whole testing in fitness is their upper body."

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Image Jim Milner

What's clear is, kids aren't getting much physical activity at school.

The U.S. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development did a nationwide survey recently. Third graders barely get 25 minutes a week of even moderate physical activity in school.

Jim Milner says it's not for lack of concern. Rather, it's a lack of commitment and cash.

"That's just budgetary," Milner says. "That's just the school district taking the opportunities away from the kids."

Many kids get no school phy ed at all. Duluth's seventh and eighth graders only need one semester of physical education each year. In high school, it's down to a single semester out of four years. Phy ed competes with core classes like reading, writing and math.

Nancy Anderson, who heads the Duluth school district's physical education programs, says Minnesota's phy ed standards are weak. Many schools aren't even coming close to national recommendations. In Duluth, elementary kids get just 30 minutes of gym a week -- one-fifth the recommendation.

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Image Battle for a submerged canoe

Even so, parents think their kids are active. But they're not, according to Anderson. There aren't any team sports in the Duluth schools until high school.

"Now, with after school programs being cut, these kids don't have access to programs, or they won't very shortly," says Anderson. "Athletics is not an area that a lot of kids are involved in after school. It's very expensive. There's a very small percentage of kids involved there."

Inactivity can pack on the pounds, even on children. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released a survey last year which found the number of school-aged children considered overweight has hit 15 percent. That's triple the level it was 20 years ago.

In Duluth, they're trying to turn the trend. The district has $300,000 to make the phy ed program more effective. The U.S. Department of Education grant will bring new technology to Duluth's program. Students will get heart rate monitors and strap on pedometers. Computer programs will help track fitness and make getting fit more fun.

Middle school students are exposed to all kinds of activities, in the hope they'll find something they'll keep doing.

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Image Lunchtime in high school

At Morgan Park, a dozen kids are romping in a swimming pool. Two are getting instructions in kayaks, and seven boys battle over a swamped canoe. This is an example of the new and improved phy ed.

They'll sample 18 activities in 18 weeks, like downhill skiing and rock climbing. It's holding the interest of eighth grader John Peterson.

"Snowshoeing was fun, because we got to play -- like we got to play football with the snowshoes," Peterson says. "That was hard, but it was still fun."

The grant will help create partnerships across the city. The district has invited a hospital to make a presentation on healthy activity. Kids will spend days at the local climbing gym. In the Duluth schools, some say phy ed has come a long way from dodgeball.

But exercise is only half the solution. It's a lot easier take in excess calories than it is to burn them off. And school kids have access to plenty of calories.

Duluth's school lunch menus comply with federal standards. The district buys fresh foods locally. Primarily, it relies on surplus meats and dairy, and canned fruits and vegetables from the federal government's school lunch program.

But those foods are less than ideal, according to Amy Lanou, who works for the Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine.

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Image Vending machine -- selling milk

"The commodities program is set up to deliver a lot of high-fat animal products to schools," says Lanou. "The USDA buys up surplus agricultural products -- very often meat, poultry, and dairy products -- and then provides them to school service programs for free, or at low cost."

Jim Bruner, director of the Duluth schools lunch program, says federal surplus food is coming in at better quality and much lower fat than years ago.

"If we do run a hot dog or something, it's a turkey dog. It's not made from pork. We also use extra lean beef," Bruner says. "The pizza that we get has reduced amount of fats that are in cheese, and that. A lot of the products are pre-made to be healthier."

Middle and upper schools get the occasional vegetarian entree, but Bruner says they're not particularly popular dishes, attracting only 15 to 20 percent of the students. Others use the salad bar.

During the midday rush at Duluth's Denfeld High School, two shifts of kids are packed into the lunch room during a single lunch hour. The room echoes with excited chatter.

Lunch director Nora Montgomery says the most popular foods are those most like fast food.

(Most popular items are) burgers and fries and snacks -- Little Debby stuff. If we don't sell it, then they'll go out to Hardees or the other local restaurants right in the area. We have to compete with them, too.
- Nora Montgomery, lunch director at Duluth Denfeld High School

"Burgers and fries and snacks -- Little Debby stuff," Montgomery says. "If we don't sell it, then they'll go out to Hardees or the other local restaurants right in the area. We have to compete with them, too."

The high school has an open campus. Officials say just a few hundred students stay for lunch, out of a student body of nearly 1,200. Dozens can be found instead two blocks away at Hardees, filling up on burgers and fries. The kids say it's better than what's served at school.

"No, I don't like the food they have. It's just nasty," says one girl. A young man adds, "It's gross. It tastes like styrofoam."

Two more girls pitch in.

"They have this Dominos pizza that they get, you know, like weeks before, and then they serve it like three weeks later, something like that," one says. "It's really rubbery, and gross, and cold."

"It sucks, and it's nasty," adds the other.

There are more calories waiting in the high school halls. Banks of vending machines are found around the school. Some machines provide relatively healthy fare, but others dispense traditional soda pop and snacks.

Principal Bill Westholm says the machines are an unwelcome necessity. They can generate $30,000 to $40,000 a year.

"We need it. There's a lot of stuff we simply could not do or buy -- whether it's department supplies or paper for our copy machines, or pens and pencils, or helping with things like field trips," Westholm says. "We don't have money to pay for that kind of thing."

Problems from obesity are more than cosmetic. A recent study in the Journal of American Medicine finds fat kids suffer from a low quality of life, associated with teasing, fatigue, and low self-esteem.

Other studies find that active kids are more able to learn. And, excess weight is clearly implicated in chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. A new study finds one-quarter of America's adults get no exercise at all.

Unless something changes, today's epidemic of fat kids might foreshadow tomorrow's epidemic of debilitating disease and early death among overweight adults.

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