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As senior projects go, Big Sky High School student Katelyn Cropp's mission to have a vending machine with healthy snacks brought to her school is a clear winner - one that deserves both applause and a community commitment to carry her idea one step further.

Missoula schools, backed by local parents, should make a conscious push to begin phasing out junk food vending machines in favor of healthier options. Healthy snacks shouldn't have to compete with junk food in our public schools. Nutritious food should be the only option.

The new vending machine at Big Sky is similar to another at Hellgate High, so it appears Missoula is making progress on this front. But with only two health-food vending machines for thousands of high school students, it is also obvious that we still have a long way to go.

At this point, every parent should be familiar with the national "epidemic" of obesity, the foundations are which are laid in lifestyle habits learned in childhood. In fact, Cropp's senior project deals with the thorny subject of childhood obesity head-on.

"I felt like one way to change habits is to change what's available and that's where the new machine came in," Cropp told a Missoulian reporter earlier this month.

Even at school, kids get hungry. Many teenagers can seemingly eat continuously all day long. They are, after all, still growing, and have a real need to snack between meals.

While most teens are capable of making healthy choices, they also need a little guidance until becoming full adults. At the very least, they need a range of options that include healthy food. What sort of a message does it send them when the only snacks available between meals are candy, chips and sugary drinks?

The truth is, kids have more than enough opportunities to buy junk food outside of school. Inside our publicly funded learning institutions, however, they should be learning how to make healthier choices - and the best way to learn is through practice.

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