WASHINGTON – As rates of obesity and diabetes continue to swell among children,some members of Congress want the federal government to step in and promote stricter nutrition programs in schools.
Lawmakers want to cut high-calorie choices from school vending machines,update standards for food served to students and put fresh produce on the snack menu.
“We need to leave no child left behind in health,” said Sen. Tom Harkin,D-Iowa,chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture,Nutrition and Forestry at a hearing about child nutrition Tuesday.
Obesity has spiked in U.S. children since the late 1970s,and one–third of all children born today will eventually develop type 2 diabetes,according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last year,schools in Britain banned meals high in salt and fat,attempting to curb childhood weight gain.
The problem may not necessarily stem from what schools spoon out in the lunch line,officials say,but from what students snack on outside the cafeteria.
About 99 percent of U.S. high schools and 83 percent of elementary schools house vending machines,school stores and or snack bars,according to the Government Accountability Office. At these snack-dispensaries,students most frequently purchase sodas,sports drinks,salt-laden snacks,candy and high-fat baked goods.
Food and beverage companies offer school districts contracts including large payments upfront and a share in revenue.
The American Beverage Association recently issued voluntary guidelines encouraging elementary and middle schools to serve only bottled water,milk and 100 percent juice in vending machines. High schools should swap high-calorie beverages like Coca Cola for Coca Cola Zero,according to the association.
The guidelines,some argue,still include sugared beverages like sports drinks and allow companies to market their brands to children.
“If I were betting on this myself,this will take a long time to roll out,there will be spotty compliance and it will be incomplete in terms of changing the children's nutrition environment,” said Kelly Brownell,director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. “The industry should not set the guidelines.”
The beverage group expects its August report to show a continued decline in the sale of full-calorie soft drinks to students.
But soft drinks form only one side of the issue,with students also feeding on fat-filled snack foods often distributed through schools.
The Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act,reintroduced by Harkin,would revamp decades-old legislation that allows for inconsistencies in what is considered nutritious.
“You can have a Twinkie,but you can't have a seltzer water,” Harkin said,quoting current U.S. Department of Agriculture nutrition standards.
Even though a Twinkie has about 150 calories and several grams of fat,it also contains some protein. Seltzer water has no nutritional value,according to USDA.
New standards would further narrow the definition of junk food,eliminating unhealthy options for student snackers.
In addition,the committee said the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program – responsible for bringing snacks like local pears,avocados and apples into schools – should be expanded to feed more students.
“I'll do whatever I can to ensure that every elementary school kid in America in 10 years gets free fresh fruits and vegetables in schools,” Harkin said. The program exists in 14 states.
The West Des Moines (Iowa) Community School District was one of the 375 districts that participated in the program,but ended it when federal funds were cut,said Beth Hanna,school nutrition specialist.
“We had our elementary school students walk up to the principal and say,‘Can't we have our fruits and vegetables back?'” Hanna said.