updated 11/30/2004 8:12:07 PM ET 2004-12-01T01:12:07

If a healthy heart and smaller waistline aren't incentive enough for kids to eat healthy foods, maybe a bracelet or key chain will do the trick.

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That's the idea behind a Buffalo school's program that in January will start offering small rewards to children who choose fruits and vegetables in the lunch line.

Planners don't want to scare students with what are legitimately scary facts — that overweight children can develop diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and other life-shortening problems. But they want them to develop better food choice habits and have a more positive attitude about good nutrition.

As part of the districtwide effort, students will be taught the benefits of eating better — that it improves academic performance and energy levels. There will also be an immediate reward in the form of a prize at the end of the week for students who have put things like carrot coins and kiwi on their trays.

The incentive is a way to "educate them and make it fun and engaging," said Gretchen Fierle of the P2 Collaborative of Western New York, a coalition of managed care organizations and community leaders coordinating the program for Buffalo's 31,000 elementary school kids.

The six-week, $450,000 program, "Be a Power Eater: The Good Food for Great Kids Program," also has a research component. Different twists on the basic program will be tried out at various schools to see what works best. At some, students will be asked to sign a personal promise to eat healthier, while some schools will compete with each other for a $2,000 prize to stage a health-related event.

"At the end, we'll report back to schools" on what works best, Fierle said.

16 percent of kids overweight
An estimated 16 percent of American children are overweight, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. A September report from the Institute of Medicine, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, said that over the last 30 years the rate of childhood obesity has tripled among youngsters aged 6 to 11 and has doubled for younger and older age groups. Among the report's suggestions is healthier school food.

The food services director for Buffalo Public Schools said schools will order more fresh produce for a wider array in the lunch line, with the costs largely offset by grants from the state Health Department and local foundations funding the program.

"We'll try to feature different varieties of fruits or vegetables that we don't normally serve, either because they are labor-intensive or they might be a little bit more expensive," said Bridget O'Brien-Wood, the food services director.

So instead of just pineapple cubes on the lunch line, students might also see kiwi and pears. And maybe, she said, they'll make some healthier choices than pizza.

Students will be encouraged to continue these healthy habits at home, where the school-based program should be viewed as a beginning, not an end, said Fierle.

"It's really scary when researchers are now publicly coming out and saying that if we continue doing what we're doing, a child born today will be the first generation ever in U.S. history not to live as long as the generation before them," she said. "And it's all preventable. That's horrifying."

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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