Junk Food in Schools Enjoys Bipartisan Support

CSPI Urges Senate to Stand Up to Junk-Food Lobby


Despite growing concerns about childhood obesity, some Democrats and most Republicans in Congress support selling junk food in school vending machines. Four Democrats on the Senate Agriculture Committee joined eight of the panel’s Republicans in defeating a proposal by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) which merely would have let the federal government develop model nutrition guidelines for foods sold in vending machines and elsewhere on school grounds.

“Some politicians give lip service to the issue of childhood obesity, yet vote to keep junk food in schools,” said CSPI nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan. “Junk-food lobbyists like the Grocery Manufacturers of America and the National Soft Drink Association wield tremendous influence in Congress and few legislators are willing to defy them.”

According to CSPI, several senators who voted against the Harkin amendment said that school food policy should be a matter of “local control,” even though school food has historically been a federal issue. The federal government invests $8.8 billion in school meal programs—an investment that CSPI says is undercut by the sale of candy, soft drinks, and chips in school vending machines and cafeteria snack lines.

“Saying ‘local control’ essentially means ‘do nothing,’ since soda companies have had great success taking advantage of cash-strapped school systems,” said Wootan. “This is really about parental control, and parents can’t have any control over their kids’ health if junk-food marketers have the key to the school-house door.”

Child nutrition legislation will soon go to the full Senate floor. Senator Harkin plans to offer an amendment that would encourage local school districts to develop nutrition and physical activity policies, provide incentive grants to schools to adopt those policies, and ask the Institute of Medicine to develop model nutrition standards that communities could use for school foods. The amendment will be similar to the one defeated in committee. The full House of Representatives has already passed child nutrition legislation that does little about junk food in schools.

“We know that soda and junk food marketers do not really support ‘local control,’ because they fight like heck when we try to get junk food out of schools at the local level,” said Duane Perry, executive director of The Food Trust, the organization that led the fight to get sodas and other unhealthy beverages out of Philadelphia School District vending machines. “Parents and local communities desperately need more federal action and guidance on promoting better nutrition in schools.”

Earlier this month, CSPI released a nationwide study showing that 75 percent of drink choices and 85 percent of snack choices in school vending machines are of poor nutritional value. 

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