updated 9/28/2004 6:47:42 PM ET 2004-09-28T22:47:42

Three U.S. Cabinet secretaries fanned out across the country Tuesday to promote healthier lifestyles, especially among the nation’s snack-filled, exercise-starved youth.

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Visiting a handful of election battleground states, they also handed out grant money to support new health programs.

“The cities have got to set aside (safe) places for kids to get outside and walk or even ride their bicycles,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, who talked up nutrition and exercise at the Penn-Alexander School, a public-private model school in West Philadelphia.

Thompson announced that 22 communities, from American Indian tribes to church-based groups to public school districts, will share “Healthier U.S.” grants totaling $37.5 million. The funding is to aid in disease-prevention or management programs, ranging from after-school health clubs in Philadelphia to stop-smoking programs for the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma.

Nine million schoolchildren in the United States are overweight, three times the number in 1980, according to a new report by Action for Healthy Kids, a coalition started by former U.S. surgeon general David Satcher.

In Minnesota — like Pennsylvania, a battleground state in the presidential race — Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman announced $2.8 million in “Healthier U.S.” grants for that state at a school in Woodbury, a Twin Cities suburb.

In addition to the Cabinet members, other health officials were also on the road. U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona trumpeted the cause in Cleveland, Ohio, another state that President Bush and Democratic nominee John Kerry are working hard to win.

Although students were mindful of the Nov. 2 election — one Philadelphia youngster asked Thompson which man he supported, while another asked if he was a Democrat — Thompson denied the check presentations were politically timed.

“It has nothing to do with the election,” he said after the event, where he shared the stage with injured Philadelphia Eagles defensive end N.D. Kalu and four Eagles cheerleaders.

In Raleigh, N.C., Education Secretary Rod Paige tossed a beach ball with students as he announced $1.3 million in grants over three years for health and fitness programs at Wake County schools.

That money came from President Bush’s No Child Left Behind initiative, Paige said. The school system is the only recipient of such funding in North Carolina.

The North Carolina Democratic Party criticized Paige’s visit, saying Bush has hurt disadvantaged children by underfunding No Child Left Behind.

Philadelphia groups received $2 million in funding this year from the “Healthier U.S.” program, of which $190,000 will go to the Philadelphia School District. The district hopes to use some of the money to start pilot health clubs for children at risk for asthma, diabetes or obesity at 25 schools.

Other programs in Pennsylvania were to share another $1 million in “Healthier U.S.” grants this year, the department said.

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