- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 11, 2004

School vending machines have become the latest target for federal lawmakers and public health advocates in the battle over obesity.

Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, yesterday introduced a bill that would give the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees public school lunch programs, more authority to tell public schools what they could put in their lunch lines and vending machines.

Constitutional advocacy groups criticized the legislation, calling it a federal intrusion on local decision making by school boards and parents.

“Senator Harkin and his co-sponsors have hopped on the ‘we know what’s best for your children’ bandwagon again,” said Marshall Manson, spokesman for the Center for Individual Freedom, an Alexandria nonprofit advocating personal liberties.

Mr. Manson said the measure would dry up a vital income source for schools while failing to teach children about personal responsibility.

Schools have long used vending machine contracts to pay for extracurricular activities, course materials and field trips. Annual income from contracts between schools and vendors varies, with some schools raising as much as $100,000 a year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Health Policy Tracking Service.

Mr. Harkin said yesterday at a press conference that too many children who are already at risk for obesity have access to junk food at school.

“We have further and unfortunate confirmation of what we already knew; that student access to junk food is pervasive,” Mr. Harkin said, citing a report released at the press conference by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Mr. Harkin’s bill also would give an undetermined amount of cash grants to schools that provided healthier choices in school food and set up more nutrition courses.

The D.C. health advocacy group, often called the “food police” because of its critical reports on pizza, fast food, chinese food and ice cream, last year surveyed 1,420 vending machines in 251 schools in 23 states and the District.

The study found that 75 percent of the beverages and 85 percent of the snacks in the machines had “poor nutritional quality.” Only 26 of the 9,723 snack slots were for fruits or vegetables, the study said.

The proclivity to offer more sodas, cookies, chips, candy and whole and 2 percent milk rather than low-fat milk, fruits or vegetables “undermines the students’ ability to make healthy choices,” said CSPI nutrition policy director Margo Wootan.

The CSPI study does not address children who bring sugar-laden lunches to school or go off campus for lunch, said Lisa Katic, a D.C. dietitian.

“What’s available has nothing to do with what is being eaten,” said Ms. Katic, who consults with the Snack Food Association, an Alexandria trade group.

She said more schools on their own are offering healthier options, like water, low-fat snacks, fruit juices and diet soda. Schools also will have the chance to add low-carb sodas to machines — Pepsi and Coca-Cola will start selling low-carb drinks sometime this summer.

While 25 states have introduced legislation curbing or banning junk food and soda sales in school, Ms. Wootan said national standards set by the Agriculture Department would be more effective in stemming the sizable childhood obesity rates in the United States.

About 15 percent of U.S. children are overweight or obese, according to the most recent data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Mr. Harkin’s bill does not specify how the standards would be enforced, leaving details up to the Agriculture Department.

A similar bill was introduced by Rep. Lynn Woolsey, California Democrat, in the House in July but has been held up in the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

Mr. Harkin’s bill comes after several trial lawyers and public health advocates have tried to blame the food industry for the rising obesity rates. The Public Health Advocacy Institute, a Boston nonprofit group, will hold its second conference on approaches to obesity lawsuits in September.

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