Soda In America: Children And Families This week, we're examining soda in America, and today, a look at children and families. Michele Norris talks with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack about his goals for nutrition standards in schools, about the choices he hopes young people and their families will learn to make, and about his own soda habits. She also speaks with community health activist Nura Green of the Aban Institute about the challenges children and families face in urban environments, where there are few healthy choices.
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Soda In America: Children And Families

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Soda In America: Children And Families

Soda In America: Children And Families

Soda In America: Children And Families

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This week, we're examining soda in America, and today, a look at children and families. Michele Norris talks with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack about his goals for nutrition standards in schools, about the choices he hopes young people and their families will learn to make, and about his own soda habits. She also speaks with community health activist Nura Green of the Aban Institute about the challenges children and families face in urban environments, where there are few healthy choices.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

(SOUNDBITE OF POPPING CAN AND FIZZING)

NORRIS: Unidentified Woman: (Singing) I'd like to teach the world to sing - sing with me - in perfect harmony, perfect harmony. I'd like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company. That's the real thing...

(SOUNDBITE OF A COCA-COLA AD)

NORRIS: Unidentified Man: America's beverage companies have removed full-calorie soft drinks from schools, reducing beverage calories by 88 percent. Together with schools, we're helping kids make more balanced choices every day.

(SOUNDBITE OF AN AMERICAN BEVERAGE ASSOCIATION AD)

NORRIS: Still, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says it's important to get kids on the right track. I asked him whether he could see allowing only water, milk and juice in schools.

TOM VILSACK: I think the key for us is to make sure that we do a good job of educating young people and their parents about precisely what is being served in schools. I think the more educated parents become, the more educated youngsters become about their food choices, the more informed choices they're going to make. And as we do, I think we're going to be better consumers and I think healthier consumers.

NORRIS: How doable is this in schools to limit those choices, and then also to make sure that, for instance, that students only have access to certain drinks if they're physically active?

VILSACK: So it's not necessarily going to reflect in a decline in vending machine receipts, it's just going to result in a different set of choices being made by young people.

NORRIS: What do you do, though, to make sure that this is consistent at home? Because if you're offering a healthy array of choices at school but then the students go home where there is a giant liter of soda on the dinner table every night, or sometimes even at the breakfast table, it seems like that could undermine what's going on during the school day.

VILSACK: It is a culture change. It is a culture shift. It takes time. But I think at the end of the day, you can't berate people. You have to encourage folks. You have to make sure they understand not only what's in for their children, but what's in it for their country. We can't have a third of our youngsters being obese. If we do, we're going to see substantial increased costs in health care. We're going to see youngsters who can't perform at the top of their game. And the country suffers.

NORRIS: In so many parts of the world, families spend hours every day trying to get access to clean water. But in this country it's sometimes difficult to get young people to reach for water. They say, you know, water, why would be want that when we can have something that's sweet? How do you make water more attractive to young people?

VILSACK: Well, first and foremost, in rural areas we're trying to make sure that there is access to clean water. In terms of making it the choice, I think the more people encourage that - there can be public service announcements, there can be modeling of that behavior by adults. I mean, youngsters pick up a lot of what their parents do. You're beginning to see more and more folks carrying water bottles around and drinking water. If folks understand and appreciate the extraordinary replenishing nature of just plain old water, they're going to drink more of it.

NORRIS: In the spirit of the old adage: Let it begin with me - what have you done to change your beverage habits? Do you reach for less soda now?

VILSACK: I'm drinking a lot more water. On my runs - I run three, four, sometimes five days a week, I used to take sports drinks to sort of during the course of a long run - five, six, eight, 10 miles. I don't do that anymore. I take water. And it's hard, you know. When you're 59 years old...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

VILSACK: ...it's not easy to change your habits. But I've got a grandson, a nine month old grandson, and I want to make sure that I'm around to see his successes.

NORRIS: Dayquan Tollen(ph) is 14, and I asked him how much soda he drinks.

DAYQUAN TOLLEN: We drink it in the morning. We won't be having orange juice or anything, so you drink a little bit of soda in the morning, get us woke up so we could walk to school and stuff. In the afternoon, for an afternoon snack and for dinner if we don't have juice.

NORRIS: What about water?

TOLLEN: Water, it don't agree with my stomach if I ain't eat nothing before I drink water. So it messes with my stomach in the morning. So I have to have something with flavor.

NORRIS: That's Dayquan Tollen. Now, Sidney Bryant(ph) who's also 14, told me she and her friends recently made a pact to give up soda. She's been trying to convert her family, all five sisters and three brothers.

SIDNEY BRYANT: I told my mother every time, go to the store and get packs of water or get water instead of soda. 'Cause before, we used to go through like 12 counts of six soda cases in one day. And then one day, I just realized that and it was like that was unacceptable. So I told my mother to go out and buy water, so we've been drinking more water now.

NORRIS: Did it take convincing?

BRYANT: Yes.

NORRIS: How'd you do that?

BRYANT: I told them that if they keep drinking soda like that, then everybody is going to get unhealthy. And since there's nine of us, I didn't want that to be a risk factor to their health. So, I decided that they had to change.

NORRIS: Now, just outside Riverside Center, there's a liquor store, a carryout and a corner store. The closest full-sized grocery store is a couple of miles away. The area is what community health activist Nura Green calls a Food Desert.

NURA GREEN: Where are you going to purchase healthy food? There's no real sense of healthy food. That's slowly changing.

NORRIS: Slowly changing. We sit down in Marvin Gaye Park, a new oasis of greenery and community art in what's been a sketchy neighborhood for years. Nura Green grew up nearby. She now teaches people here about the risks of diabetes and the importance of exercise. She herself likes roller skating. She also teaches people how to eat better.

GREEN: I said, well, yes, pineapple, but let's see about that pineapple soda. One, it's a soda, so it's a sugary beverage. Two, it doesn't even have the original pineapple in it at all, other than the name pineapple. And once I broke that down to him, he kind of sat back and looked, and he thought about it. You could see the, you know, the mechanism going on in his head like, well, how did that happen? And so, it's now up to us to really educate kids.

NORRIS: Who has the real responsibility here? Is it the storekeeper? Is it the school, to get the sodas out of the school building? Is it the parents to make sure that they're not purchasing so much soda and keeping it in the cupboard or the refrigerator?

GREEN: There are several initiatives to get healthier food in the corner stores, and there has to be a drive towards that. And I'm happy to say that there is a groundswell for that activity to occur.

NORRIS: So it's in process. We're on the way to something.

GREEN: We're on the way to something. We're not quite there yet, though, because we have a huge problem.

NORRIS: When you drive around the community, you see a group of kids, they're having a great time, it's after school, they're talking about the things that kids talk about, their heads are thrown back in laughter, and almost every single one of them has a soda in their hand, what goes through your mind?

GREEN: I wish one had water. If one of them had water, it would make all the difference. All one person has to do is make the change, and I don't even want to say juice, just water because I think that makes all the difference.

NORRIS: As early as next year, calorie information will have to be displayed in many restaurants and on vending machines. That's part of the new health care law. But will that stop people from reaching for their favorite beverages or snacks? Food for thought.

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