- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Congress is considering expanding school nutritional standards to vending machines as the childhood obesity rates continues to rise.

Legislation introduced yesterday by Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat and chairman of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, would require the Department of Agriculture to update school nutrition standards to extend to vending machines and school stores.

Children are overexposed to unhealthy foods from vending machines, a la carte lines and in school stores, school nutrition officials told the committee yesterday.

“Snack foods, desserts, pastries, candy and soft drinks are part of the nation’s school landscape,” said Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. He said school systems have become fertile ground for food marketers as children spend about $140 billion annually on food and beverage products.

Federal nutrition standards for food served in school cafeterias were set in the early 1990s. Expanding that legislation is supported by the committee’s top Republican, Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana.

“I think we need national standards for what’s occurring in the hallways of the nation’s schools,” he said.

A report by Congress’ investigative arm, the Government Accountability Office, found that 83 percent of elementary schools and 99 percent of high schools sell unhealthy foods such as candy and soft drinks inside and outside the cafeteria. Unhealthy foods are linked to a rising obesity rate among children that has doubled over the past two decades and an upswing in the number of type two diabetes cases in adolescents.

About 30.3 percent of children ages 6 to 11 are overweight and 15.3 percent are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For adolescents — ages 12 to 19 — 30.4 percent are overweight and 15.5 percent are obese.

Federal nutrition standards would supplant an agreement between former President Bill Clinton’s Alliance for a Healthier Generation and the American Beverage Association, which includes companies such as Pepsi-Cola and Coca-Cola, that created voluntary standards to cap calories and portion sizes and eliminate full-calorie soft drinks in every grade. Those standards will be ready this fall, with full implementation targeted for August 2009.

A similar agreement was reached in October between the Clinton group and five of the country’s largest snack food producers — Dannon, Kraft Foods, Mars, Pepsi and Campbell Soup Co.

But the voluntary nature of both sets of nutrition guidelines casts doubt on whether schools will choose to opt out of lucrative contracts with beverage and snack food companies that often provide schools with money for extracurricular activities that the state and counties do not.

“Revenue is a concern,” Mr. Lugar said. “We need to get more data on that.”

Mary Hennrich, executive director of Community Health Partnership in Oregon, said voluntary standards will not solve health problems associated with snack foods.

“The magnitude of the obesity problem necessitates a more certain solution,” she said. “These voluntary guidelines are unenforceable and it remains to be seen whether and to what extent schools will accept and comply with them.”

Some states and school districts already have strict limits on food sold outside the government-regulated school lunch and breakfast programs. But a recent analysis found that 20 percent of the largest 100 school districts in the country have set specific nutrition standards for a la carte and vending sales.

“Current school-wellness policies demonstrate that local control results in uneven, haphazard standards that protect only some children,” Mr. Brownell said.

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