Selling Out Our Students’ Health: Atkins Scores a Fat Deal With the NEA

by Jacqueline Domac

"A" is for "Atkins"? Maybe, if you ask the National Education Association (NEA). The teachers' group recently announced that it is partnering with the Atkins diet company to promote "sound nutrition" to our youth. What this means is that Atkins is buying the chance to promote its diet and, appallingly, to underwrite a school guide on nutrition.

With Atkins' underwriting of the NEA's nutrition efforts, you can bet that parents, kids and teachers will be inundated with "low-carb" messages promoting meat and other fatty foods. Low-carb diets have been condemned by many health organizations, including the American Heart Association, because they often lead to high cholesterol levels and other problems. Atkins also takes the emphasis off fresh fruits and vegetables, foods that health experts say our children don't eat nearly enough of.; an estimated 96 percent of kids don't eat enough fruits and vegetables.

Isn't it hard enough for our children to make healthy choices without adding Atkins to the mix? Four years ago, one of my students asked if we could sell pure juice in our high school's vending machines. As a health teacher in Los Angeles, I was surprised that we didn't already. I put the request in our financial manager's mailbox and received a response the next day: "Sorry, selling this juice would violate our exclusive beverage contract." Since when did private industry trump students' health?

Within a few years, my students and I not only got soda off our campus, we led the successful battle to eliminate it from the entire Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the second-largest district in the nation. Film crews around the world covered the story, and the NEA was so impressed that it nominated me for the National Healthy School Hero Award.

So why is the NEA now selling out our students' health to the highest bidder? It's no secret that schools are strapped for cash. However, it was never the responsibility of students to subsidize their public education with their pocket change. And it's equally irresponsible and naïve of the largest teachers' organization in the country to rely upon the vested interests of private industry to promote nutrition education to our students.

Atkins is reportedly paying in the low to middle six figures to seal the deal with the NEA, buying the company the right to underwrite a guide for the state boards of education on school nutrition. With so much money changing hands, no one should be surprised if low-carb diets find their way into the final draft. My students wrote the initial draft of the LAUSD Obesity Prevention Resolution, and they did it for free. They also learned a good lesson in the process, and it never crossed their minds to ask Atkins or any other private industry for help. They learned that some soft drinks, which can be used to clean toilets and car batteries, should be stored under the sink, not poured into their bodies. If given the task of investigation, they would surely uncover equally disturbing facts about the high-protein, low-carb Atkins diet and its side effects on their hearts and livers.

With more than 9 million overweight schoolchildren in the United States, a number that has tripled since the 1980s, it's no surprise that policymakers are scrambling for a quick solution at a cheap price. Study after study has shown that healthier students mean higher academic performance rates, lower truancy and less violence. However, Atkins will not help us reach these goals any quicker than would Coca-Cola contracts or Pizza Hut deals. Partnering with a fad-diet company is not only bad business, it's also poor policy and will likely face legal challenges down the road. If it does, Atkins and the NEA can count on my students to teach them a nutrition lesson at the courthouse.

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