An increasing prevalence of obesity and Type II Diabetes among New Haven youth has prompted an overhaul of city public schools’ cafeteria and vending machine offerings.

New Haven is the first city in Connecticut to implement a city-wide junk-free school zone policy, said Luis Rodriguez, a marketing specialist for the New Haven Public Schools Food Service Division. Vending machines in city public schools now sell only 100 percent juice beverages, milk, water and low-fat chips and snacks, while cafeteria menus have changed to offer healthier lunch alternatives such as fresh salads and cold-cut sandwiches, he said. Elementary and middle schools no longer offer fried food, but are instead baking cafeteria standards such as French fries and chicken nuggets.

The changes are part of the Healthy Kids First initiative, a city-wide health program that aims to address rising childhood obesity rates in New Haven through nutritional education and restrictions on high-fat, high-sugar foods in schools throughout the city.

“New Haven has been a very progressive city in the sense that they recognize the problem and are willing to do something about it,” Rodriguez said.

Yale has joined forces with the city in the battle against childhood obesity. In September 2001, Yale School of Nursing Dean Margaret Grey collaborated with Connecticut State Senator Toni Harp (D-New Haven) to establish The Task Force to Reduce and Prevent Obesity in Children. The committee brings together representatives from the mayor’s office, local clergy and the medical field to discuss ways of improving city children’s nutrition and physical activity. Some of the initial projects undertaken by the committee include a school redesign program to increase open spaces for physical activity and building walking trails in New Haven, Grey said.

In recent years, nurse practitioners in public schools have voiced concerns about health problems linked to obesity, Grey said.

“Ten to fifteen years ago, there were no cases of Type II diabetes in children,” Grey said. “However, we’re seeing that 30 to 40 percent children now diagnosed with diabetes have type II.”

Type II, or adult onset, diabetes is the form of the disease shown to be closely linked to obesity, according to the American Diabetes Association.

Grey said the high percentage of minority children in New Haven partially explains the high rates of Type II diabetes. Statistics from the American Obesity Association reveal higher rates of obesity among African Americans and Latinos, which may be due to a genetic predisposition.

“Obesity is multifactoral,” she said. “It’s income-driven, but it also has to do with lifestyle and genetics.”

New Haven’s childhood obesity rate is 50 percent higher than the national average, according to the Task Force’s website,

The nutritional overhaul will have a significant effect on New Haven students — almost all elementary school students and most high school students eat food prepared in their school cafeteria. Due to the city’s participation in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National School Lunch Program, a federally-assisted program that provides low-cost or free lunches to needy disadvantaged children, very few students bring food from home he said.

“It’s been our goal to transform the stigma of ‘school lunch’ into a nice product in a nice package that’s appealing to kids,” Rodriguez said.

Though New Haven is the only city in the state to implement a city-wide junk-free school zone policy, the Connecticut Board of Education has recently completed a two-year pilot program similar to New Haven’s in five Connecticut schools.

Five nearby high schools in Southington, Meriden, Colchester and Danbury have restricted their choices in cafeterias and vending machines to healther items such baked chips, water and smoothies in their cafeterias and vending machines over the past two years, Connecticut Department of Education official Susan Fiore said. Funding for the program came from a $200,000 USDA grant, she said.

A state-level nutrition committee is now studying the financial effects of the program, as well as the change’s effect on students’ food consumption choices. Fiore said the change led to a decrease in sales of a la carte dishes at the schools, such as milk or a bag of potato chips, and an increase in sales of USDA meals. Later this fall, the committee will release an action guide detailing the results.

Fiore said she cannot yet determine how much the schools’ cafeteria revenues have changed due to the nutritional modifications.

“Districts will argue that they can’t make the changes because they’ll lose money, but across the nation there have been success stories,” she said.