ORANGE, Va. — At Orange County High, the sugar rush begins barely an hour and a half into the school day — at 9:30 am.
As students dart through the hallways between classes, a crowd builds at a popular meeting place. It’s a food cart loaded with cookies, candy bars and other sugary treats.
Business is brisk. But do kids really need a Kit Kat bar at 9:30 a.m.?
“Maybe not a Kit Kat bar,” said Gene Kotulka, the school’s principal. “But we have other breakfast items on there, because we have some kids that don't eat breakfast.”
Kotulka is unapologetic about the cart’s offerings. He says it brings in $400 to $500 a week — extra cash that pays for after-school sports programs at a time when the budget is tight.
Still, it’s not the kind of breakfast he’d want for his kids.
“But that's my job as a parent to educate my kids,” he said. “And hopefully they'll make good choices.”
The kinds of food kids are eating these days is getting more scrutiny than ever as obesity rates among children have tripled from a generation ago.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three children in America is either obese or overweight. That puts them at risk at some point in their lives of developing Type-II diabetes, a disease that — until now — affected mostly middle-aged adults.
Even more alarming is a study in the New England Journal of Medicine that concluded this could be the first generation to have a shorter lifespan than their parents.
‘Do or die’ moment
Doreese Licari is a 10th-grader at Arlington Catholic High School outside of Boston. At 15, she weighs about 250 pounds and has been overweight for most of her young life. Just a few months before we met her, she learned she has a good chance of developing diabetes.
- Courtney Love and Frances Bean Cobain Share a Hug at Sundance
- Lindsay Lohan Poses in Her Underwear and Jokes About Untreatable Illness
- How Did JLo's Sexy Co-Star Sculpt His Washboard Abs?
- Go Behind-the-Scenes of the Sundance Film Festival!
- Gwyneth Paltrow's GOOP Thinks You Should Make 'Sex Bark' for Valentine's Day
Video: Selling junk food to kids “It was extremely scary,” she said. “I've never had to experience anything like that before. My mom saw me crying because I was so scared. I was almost lost.”
Doreese called it her “do or die” moment — a phrase that may be more apt than she realizes.
“An overweight or obese child who develops Type-II diabetes by age 15 may be looking at renal failure, a heart attack, or severe neurological damage before the 30th birthday,” said Dr. David Ludwig, who leads a weight-loss program at Boston Children’s Hospital, where Doreese and her family turned for help.
“Because of the obesity epidemic, we may be looking at heart attack as becoming a pediatric disease,” he said.
Doreese’s mother, Charlene Deveney, as a single parent who sometimes works seven days a week holding down two jobs, often didn’t have enough time — or money — to put nutritious meals on the table. She says she regrets she didn’t see the warning signs of her daughter’s diabetes earlier.
“I felt like it was my fault,” she said. “Because I thought I should have been more on top of things that she was eating.”
Doreese has some regrets of her own, too.
“It's my decision when I go out to eat whether to get a salad or pizza,” she said. “I should be knowledgeable enough to make that decision. But when it comes down to it, I didn't. I made the wrong decision time and time again.”
If families need to take more responsibility for their children, health advocates say, so do food and beverage companies.
“We have created an environment, mainly driven by the profit motive — that is tremendously unhealthy for individuals today,” said Ludwig. “Unless we combine personal responsibility with corporate responsibility and political action in Washington, we're going to create a public health disaster that's going to threaten our international competitiveness as a society.”
We wanted to talk about responsibility with the CEOs of some of the major companies that sell snacks and beverages. But despite interview requests with Pepsi, Kraft, Kellogg’s, and others, none would agree to go on camera.
So we went to the industry’s lobbyists in Washington, the Grocery Manufacturers Association. We asked the group’s spokesperson, Scott Faber, how much responsibility food companies bear for an obesity epidemic that has hit a third of the U.S. population.
“We're doing our part,” said Faber. “We've done remarkable things in the last few years to reduce the amount of fat, sodium, sugar, and calories in our products. We've changed the recipes of more than 10,000 of the products you would find in the grocery aisles.”
Faber also took issue with criticism that the food industry spends heavily to advertise junk food to children.
“We have applied strict nutrition standards to our child-directed advertising, to advertising seen on children's programming,” he said. “More than two-thirds of the ads now seen on kid's shows are for healthy products or active lifestyles.”
The industry insists it’s changed the way it advertises to kids. But some public health experts say there’s actually been a turn for the worse: that junk food marketing has grown more sophisticated, is now embedded in social networking sites, and even shows up in school lunchrooms and hallways.
After years of inaction, Washington has now zeroed in on the food companies, pressing industry leaders to make their products healthier. Some lawmakers are pushing for a ban on soft drinks and candy in schools.
They have a powerful ally: First Lady Michelle Obama has made childhood obesity her signature issue . One of her biggest priorities: improving the menu in the lunchroom.
One in three school districts in the U.S. offers items from a fast-food chain — like KFC, Quiznos and Carl’s Jr.
The most popular restaurant brand is Domino’s Pizza — served in thousands of schools. Critics argue that by introducing pizza to kids at a fairly young age in school, they become lifelong customers. That may be good for brand loyalty, they argue, but it’s not a great way to improve nutrition for children.
But Domino’s CEO Patrick Doyle sees nothing wrong with serving pizza to kids.
“The basic pizza that we've got is very nutritional,” he said. ”People love a Domino's cheese pizza; a slice of cheese pizza is a great choice. You put vegetables on it, it's a great choice. They control that. You know, they control how they top the pizza. “
Healthy, but pricier
Still, a growing number of schools are beginning to reject pizza and other processed food.
At Rocketship Academy charter school in San Jose, Calif., students are served healthy lunches like organic turkey meatloaf, fresh fruit and skim milk.
The meals are prepared locally by a small startup company called Revolution Foods. On a recent visit, second- and third-graders gave their lunch a thumbs up.
There’s one big problem: Healthier choices are more expensive. While the federal government offers some subsidies for school meals for low-income students, they don’t cover the full cost of serving healthier food.
John Danner, CEO of Rocketship Education, which runs the school, says the school has to make up $40,000 to $50,000 to cover the shortfall in the cost of serving a healthier menu. That takes money away from other education programs, he said.
“The money we get from the government barely covers just the food itself from Revolution Foods and doesn't cover any of our cafeteria workers or anyone working on the food,” he said. ”Healthy and well-educated kids: Which part do you cut out?”
Danner’s hope is that by instilling healthy eating habits earlier, fewer kids like Doreese Licari will suffer from adult-sized health problems.
“As a kid, I just thought I was a little chubbier than everyone else,” said Doreese. “It wasn't a big deal. Once I found out I (might have) diabetes, it was a whole different story. And I think that if everyone could band together, I think a lot of things would change.”
© 2012 CNBC, Inc. All Rights Reserved