Effort to Limit Junk Food in Schools Faces Hurdles
Federal lawmakers are considering the broadest effort ever to limit
what children eat: a national ban on selling candy, sugary soda and
salty, fatty food in school snack bars, vending machines and cafeteria
Whether the measure, an amendment to the farm bill, can survive the
convoluted politics that have bogged down that legislation in the
Senate is one issue. Whether it can survive the battle among factions
in the fight to improve school food is another.
Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa and the chairman of the Agriculture
Committee, has twice introduced bills to deal with foods other than
the standard school lunch, which is regulated by Department of Agriculture.
Several lawmakers and advocates for changes in school food believe
that an amendment to the $286 billion farm bill is the best chance
to get control of the mountain of high-calorie snacks and sodas available
to schoolchildren. Even if the farm bill does not pass, Mr. Harkin
and Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, a sponsor of the
amendment, vow to keep reintroducing it in other forms until it sticks.
They are optimistic about their chances because there is more public
interest than ever in improving school food and because leaders in
the food and beverage industry have had a hand in creating the new
But that intense corporate involvement, along with exemptions that
would allow sales of chocolate milk, sports drinks and diet soda,
has caused a rift among food activists who usually find themselves
on the same side of school food battles.
"This pits ideals about what children should eat at school against
the political reality of large food corporations insisting their foods
be available to children at all times," said Marion Nestle, a professor
at New York University and the author of two recent books on food
politics and diet. "The activists want vending machines out of schools
completely." Dr. Nestle has taken no public stand on the measure.
The nutrition standards would allow only plain bottled water and eight-ounce
servings of fruit juice or plain or flavored low-fat milk with up
to 170 calories to be sold in elementary and middle schools. High
school students could also buy diet soda or, in places like school
gyms, sports drinks. Other drinks with as many as 66 calories per
eight ounces could be sold in high schools, but that threshold would
drop to 25 calories per eight-ounce serving in five years.
Food for sale would have to be limited in saturated and trans fat
and have less than 35 percent sugar. Sodium would be limited, and
snacks must have no more than 180 calories per serving for middle
and elementary schools and 200 calories for high schools.
The standards would not affect occasional fund-raising projects, like
Girl Scout cookie sales.
Although states would not be able to pass stronger restrictions, individual
school districts could.
The rules have the support of food and drink manufacturers, including
the American Beverage Association, which worked closely on the amendment
with Mr. Harkin's office and the Center for Science in the Public
Interest, an advocacy group that has been critical of the food industry.
"This whole effort has momentum because of the variety of interests
that have come together who do not usually find agreement," said Susan
Neely, president of the beverage association.
Some parents and nutritionists are angry that states will not be able
to enact even tougher limits.
"My little fights in school districts are just going to be harder
and harder because they'll say, Well, here are the federal guidelines,"
said Dr. Susan Rubin of Chappaqua, N.Y., a nutritionist who helped
found the Better School Food advocacy group.
"It's crazy to think we are going to fix children's health just by
letting companies sell schoolchildren smaller portions of Gatorade
and baked chips," she said.
Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science
in the Public Interest, has long been a critic of companies that produce
food that she considers unhealthy and of government policy toward
That is why some of the center's allies were surprised that Ms. Wootan
had worked so closely with manufacturers on the standards. Conversely,
she was surprised to find herself on the defensive for finally arranging
food limits that actually have a good chance at becoming law.
"I do not understand why some groups would try to stand in the way
of legislation that is going to get soda, snack cakes and other high-fat,
high-salt food out of virtually all schools," she said.
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