Momentum Grows for Push to Expel Junk Food from Schools


WASHINGTON—Foods sold in schools will get a long-overdue nutritional makeover if legislation introduced today by Senators Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) gets wrapped into this year's updates to the child nutrition programs, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The group says that the pizza, sodas, so-called "energy drinks," chips, and candy abundantly available in schools are helping to fuel an epidemic of child obesity and diabetes.

Harkin, long a proponent of getting more fresh fruits and vegetables into schools, wants to update nutrition standards for the foods sold alongside school meals in the cafeteria, as well as foods sold in vending machines and school stores. Narrow nutrition standards were last set during the Carter Administration and only apply in the cafeteria during mealtimes. Harkin's bill would apply everywhere on campus during the whole school day.

"In all but a handful of cities and states, junk food is still out of control in schools," said CSPI nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan. "The federal government spends billions on the school lunch program, but that investment is undercut by the sale of soda and other junk foods. Parents want to know the money they send their son or daughter to school with will be spent on healthy foods, not disease-promoting junk."

Current law only prohibits the sale of "foods of minimal nutritional value" in the cafeteria during meal times. But standards for those foods, crafted in 1979, were drafted with an eye toward ensuring that school foods had a modicum of certain nutrients, such as protein and calcium. As a consequence, school's can’t sell calorie-free seltzer water, but pizza, doughnuts, and cheeseburgers can be sold without limits on calories, saturated or trans fat, or sodium. And because the nutrition standards only apply in the cafeteria, most vending machines can sell virtually anything. Two-thirds of states still rely on the outdated national standards.

"Poor diet and physical inactivity contribute to growing rates of chronic disease among children. One-third of American children born today will develop type II diabetes at some point and rates of obesity are skyrocketing," said Harkin. "Our legislation requires common-sense nutrition standards for the foods and beverages that are sold in school vending machines and similar outlets. Otherwise, junk food will continue to undermine the $11 billion that taxpayers pay for nutritious school meals."

Similar legislation was introduced in the House in March by Representative Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) and is cosponsored by 128 other House members. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has voiced support for healthy school food. And advocates for improving school food are confident that they have another ally at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue: As a senator, Barack Obama introduced his own bill to get junk food out of schools.

"It's a myth that schools have to rely on junk-food sales to balance their budgets. Happily, schools that switch out junk foods for healthier drinks and snacks don't usually lose revenue," said Wootan. "Given the ability of schools to make money selling healthy foods, the political shifts in Washington, and the childhood obesity epidemic, the time is ripe for strong national legislation supporting healthy food for healthy kids."

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