Obesity is on the Rise. Children have diabetes. COVID is tied to diet-related disease. So why is the DOE spending $3 million dollars a year serving it to 1.1 million children every day?
Thousands of children growing sick from sugar in a country where the obesity epidemic has reached epic rates and shows no signs of slowing down. In the state of New York, childhood obesity has tripled over the past three decades. While obesity rates had been on the decline in recent years, they remain staggering.
Within NYC, 40 percent of NYC public school students aged 6 to 12 are overweight or obese. Health-care costs related to obesity in this country topped $1.72 trillion dollars in 2018. Additionally, according to research reported in Obestiy Reviews, obese children and adolescents were “aproximately five times more likely to be obese in adulthood than those who were not obese.”
This data is alarming in a regular year, but during this pandemic, it is terrifying. While there are many mysteries surrounding COVID, this much is true: it is most deadly when it hits individuals with diet-related disease. A paper published in JAMA about New York State’s largest health system found that of those who died of COVID-related complications, 57 percent had hypertension, 41 percent were obese, and 34 percent had diabetes.
And yet, the DOE is poised to spend $3 million on a contract for fruit juice (and according to information disclosed by a Freedom of Information Act request I made, it spent spent $12.8 million on chocolate milk in FY 2018 and $12.1 million in FY 2019).
Let’s be clear, despite all the marketing and government support, the simple fact is that fruit juice is sugar. In fact, one 12-ounce glass of orange juice contains 10 teaspoons of sugar, which is roughly what’s in a can of Coke.
Drinking fruit juice is not the same as eating whole fruit. While eating certain fruits like apples and grapes is associated with a reduced risk of diabetes, drinking fruit juice is associated with the opposite. Juices contain more concentrated sugar and calories. They also have less fiber, which makes you feel full.
Because juice can be consumed quickly, it is more likely than whole fruit to contribute to excess carbohydrate intake. For example, research has found that adults who drank apple juice before a meal felt hungrier and ate more calories than those who started with an apple instead. Children who drink juice instead of eating fruit may similarly feel less full and may be more likely to snack throughout the day.
Juice may also be a “gateway beverage” — 1-year-olds who drank more juice also drank more sugary beverages, including more soda, in their school-age years. Children’s excessive consumption of juice has been linked to an increased risk of weight gain, shorter stature and cavities. Even in the absence of weight gain, sugar consumption worsens blood pressure and increases cholesterol.
Because of the dangers of sugar consumption to health, New York City’s Department of Corrections (DOC) has phased out sugar-sweetened beverages because of their ties to costly obesity-related diseases; DOC Commissioner Martin Horn told Gothamist, “the move will save money in the long run because healthier inmates will be less prone to strokes, heart attacks or diabetic shock on the city's watch.” Today, the DOC bans both chocolate milk and juice. And yet, NYC’s Department of Education (DOE) continues to serve chocolate milk to 1.1 million children a day.
What about water? Turns out kids should be drinking a lot more of it. Studies have shown that access to fresh drinking water is critical: it can lead to improved weight status, reduced dental issues, and improved cognition among children and adolescents.
Water fountains in public schools are notoriously clogged or out of service, so the DOE has installed cafeteria water jets — electrically cooled, large, clear jugs with a push lever for fast dispensing — where parents have requested them, but, as of 2016, only 55 percent of schools had them.
Water jets have been shown to be an important tool in fighting obesity. According to a study published in JAMA Pediatrics that was conducted in New York City’s public elementary and middle schools, installing water jets in cafeterias was associated with a small but significant average weight loss among students. “Water jets could be an important part of the toolkit for obesity reduction techniques at the school setting,” the study’s authors concluded. Rather than funding water jets (about $700 each), DOE continues to purchase beverages like juice and chocolate milk.
“Public health efforts should challenge government guidelines that equate fruit juice with whole fruit, because these guidelines most likely fuel the false perception that drinking fruit juice is good for health.”
Juice (and chocolate milk for that matter) should have been eliminated years ago, but now especially, in the age of COVID, we must stop serving fruit juice in schools and prioritize the health of our children so that the next pandemic does not take them.