New effort seeks to put lid on junk food in the schools

Rising rates of obesity, diabetes in the U.S. spur move in Congress

April 17, 2006|By MATTHEW CHAYES

WASHINGTON -- Sixth-grader Vincent Yeung of Sun Prairie, Wis., says he drinks Mountain Dew "only sometimes" and snacks "on special occasions" on chips like the Fritos available at his school.

His mother tells a different story about her 11-year-old's junk food habits at school. "Always!" said Fan Jiang, 46, on a recent visit to Washington. Vincent shrugged sheepishly.

Nutrition activists have been trying since 1994 to get soft drinks and junk food out of the reach of children like Vincent, who may find snacks and soda for sale in their cafeteria, vending machines and school stores. But with the help of the beverage and snack food lobby, opponents have blocked the efforts.

This time, supporters hope that bipartisan backing for a school junk food bill, along with a new awareness of the nation's skyrocketing obesity and diabetes rates, will make this year the year efforts to boot products like Coca-Cola become the real thing.

The bill faces an uphill battle, given the opposition of beverage and snack food trade groups, which say the industry's voluntary guidelines for limiting sales in schools make the legislation unnecessary.

"The industry's not going to support a bill that's not showing results," said Lisa Katic, a consultant to the food and beverage industry, adding that the emphasis should be on getting children to exercise.

But supporters say the legislation is badly needed, and they hope it will draw new attention to the national conversation about nutrition, health and children.

The bill, introduced this month by Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, would require the Department of Agriculture to update its definition of "foods of minimal nutritional value," the standard that tells schools what they can sell in cafeterias.

Critics say those 1979 guidelines are badly out of date. Unlike 27 years ago, much of the food at high schools and middle schools is sold outside the cafeteria in vending machines or at on-campus stores and snack bars, according to a Government Accountability Office study.

"A student only needs to walk outside of the lunchroom and into the hall to buy a lunch of a 20-ounce soda, a bag of chips or a candy bar," Harkin said. "That is a loophole big enough to drive, if you'll pardon the expression, a Coca-Cola delivery truck through - and it's time to close it."

He added: "If junk food is junk food during the lunch hour, isn't it junk food at 2 p.m. or 3 p.m., or 9 a.m.?"

The current guidelines also require that school food contain certain nutrients, rather than minimizing calories, saturated fat, trans fat, added sugar and other unhealthful items. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a food and nutrition lobbying group that supports the bill, seltzer water is forbidden under the guidelines, while candy bars, cookies and potato chips are allowed.

In 1983, a federal court ruled that the agriculture secretary had exceeded his authority by trying to regulate sales in schools by time and place. Harkin's bill would give the secretary that power.

Nationwide, many school systems have moved to limit or ban junk food, as have states like Maryland, California and New Jersey, although the great majority of schools permit it. But a move this month by Gov. Rod Blagojevich to limit junk food in Illinois grade schools was rebuffed by a legislative review panel.

Snack and beverage groups say such efforts send the wrong message to the nation's young people without tackling the root cause of obesity and health problem - an increasingly sedentary lifestyle that discourages regular exercise.

"Food has been around forever," said Katic, the industry consultant. "But the change in the activity is to me what's most dramatic. It's easier to pick on food because it's something visual and tangible."

Industry representatives also say total bans are ill-advised because even so-called junk food, consumed in moderation, can be part of a nutritious, healthy diet. "And yes, there is room in that mix for soft drinks," the American Beverage Association Web site says.

The beverage association adopted voluntary guidelines last year in part to pre-empt tougher legislation. The guidelines ban soft drinks in elementary schools and limit them to 50 percent of drink offerings in high schools.

But Harkin and the bill's supporters, noting that children will gravitate toward flashy marketing, said voluntary guidelines are not enough.

"When parents send their kids to school with lunch money, they shouldn't have to worry about whether or not the child is going to buy a balanced school meal, or instead make their lunch out of Flaming Cheetos and a Coke," said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Matthew Chayes writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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