Bill takes aim at sweet, fatty foods in schools

Pinsky would curb access to unhealthy snacks, soda

March 17, 2004|By Kimberly A.C. Wilson | Kimberly A.C. Wilson,SUN STAFF

As studies show an alarming increase in obesity among America's youth, and even McDonald's has been pressured to phase out its super-size fries, a Maryland lawmaker is trying to tighten access to high-fat snacks and sugary sodas in the state's schools.

If Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat and a former history teacher, has his way, vending machines in schools around the state will be restricted in when they can dispense soft drinks --a move he sees as another step in the growing national effort to curb obesity.

Soda bans have been enacted around the country, including in Los Angeles and New York City.

Pinsky's bill, which squeaked out of committee last week after a 6-5 vote, would require Maryland schools to install timers on their vending machines to restrict student access to sodas until 30 minutes after the school day ends in junior high and grade school, and until the end of the last lunch period in high schools.

No unhealthy foods would be allowed at all in elementary schools, and for older students, unhealthy snacks would be available only after lunch in the first year of the law. Schools would also have to explore beefing up physical education programs for kindergarten through 12th grade.

"We're talking about kids' lives," Pinsky said. "You can't require kids to take a half-year of health and then leave the classroom and walk past 30 or 40 vending machines in the hallway that are all saying `buy something from me.' "

Milk, water, tea, 100 percent juice: no problem. But sugary carbonated drinks, in schools where physical education classes have been slashed and waistlines balloon? Not at all hours, if Pinsky's legislation prevails in its second reading this morning on the Senate floor.

For each of the past three years, Pinsky, a former Prince George's County educator, has introduced similar measures to turn off the soda spigots in schools. This time, amid recent decisions by lawmakers and educators in California and Arkansas that have begun to strip schools of pop, Pinsky hopes momentum may be in his favor.

Ellen Valentino, a lobbyist for the Maryland Soft Drink Association who testified against the bill, said the image of school children floating through their days on a sea of Pepsi and Coke is an unfair characterization.

"It's a red herring," Valentino said. "Many of the machines in schools are already on timers, kids in elementary school aren't walking around with sodas in their hands, and this state already has one of the more restrictive sets of benchmarks in the country," she said.

Current state law requires vending machines be turned off during most school hours. Most are located in gymnasiums and areas used after school by community members and students, and many offer water, teas and diet drinks.

But Pinsky says the law's intent sometimes falls victim to a school's financial interest in selling snacks to offset operating expenses. And the machines rake in the pocket change for many districts: Last year in Carroll County's 40 public schools, vending machine sales dumped about $87,000 into school coffers.

The revenue is only one of the reasons some school boards around the state are lukewarm to the idea of legislated soda bans in schools. For one thing, they say, the machines fall under their local control; and for another, the weight crisis doesn't begin or end on their turf.

"They're not gaining weight at school," said Susan G. Holt, a Carroll County school board member.

But proponents of tighter vending restrictions in schools point out that kids are getting heftier and more unhealthy every year.

A national health and nutrition survey conducted over the past 50 years reveals a mushrooming effect in the percentage of overweight children ages 6 to 11, nearly quadrupling since 1963. And overweight older kids, ages 12 to 19, tripled to 15 percent.

The statistics are among the reasons the American Academy of Pediatrics warns school districts nationwide that access to soda vending machines can compound the risk of obesity in kids, reduce their consumption of milk, and result in an array of complications, from cavities and high blood pressure to diabetes.

This, while a newly released study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found obesity-related diseases vying with tobacco-related ailments for No. 1 status among preventable deaths for adults and children.

Anne Arundel County school board member Eugene Peterson, who doesn't completely embrace the idea of eliminating soft drinks from school vending machines, said an array of healthful options could help educate students.

"It's about balance," Peterson said."We need to get kids educated about good choices early on."

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