Lawmakers want to make sure Connecticut students aren't part of the Pepsi Generation. Connecticut is on the verge of adopting the most far-reaching ban in the country on soda and junk food in public schools, in an effort to curb rising rates of childhood obesity.
Similar but weaker proposals have been introduced in at least 17 states this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Policies are on the books in a few states, such as Arkansas and California.
Advocates say Connecticut's ban would be the strongest because it is so broad, applying to all grades and all school sites where food is sold.
"Connecticut would be the first state to apply those standards to high schools," said Margo Wootan, director of nutritional policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "Most of the recently passed policies are limited in that they only apply to elementary and middle schools."
Last week, lawmakers in the House voted 88-55 after an eight-hour debate to pass a law banning soda and junk food in cafeterias, vending machines and school stores. It also requires 20 minutes of physical activity outside of gym for children in kindergarten through fifth grade.
The bill heads to the Senate this week where leaders expect it to pass.
"By no stretch of the imagination does it solve all the problems, but it's very important that we provide the right models in our schools," said Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr.
The topic was one of the most contested issues of the session. The lengthy debate outlasted discussions about the death penalty and a bill that allowed Connecticut to grant same-sex civil unions. Lawmakers confessed their personal weight problems and many lawmakers openly drank soda during the debate.
Soft drink companies lobbied fiercely against the bill, and many high schools worried they would lose money if sodas disappeared. In the end, weary legislators allowed a compromise that permits high school sales of diet soda and sports drinks on a limited basis.
"Diet sodas, while not particularly good for children, have zero sugar content and therefore do not contribute to the weight problem that we're trying to address," said Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford.
Opponents argue that the legislation crossed a line, implementing a "Big Brother"-style mandate better handled by local school districts. Rep. Lawrence Cafero, R-Norwalk, said the legislation wouldn't affect the obesity crisis when school menus offer selections such as cheeseburgers, pizza, chicken nuggets and nachos.
"How many of you will stand there and say, 'If you have your share of sloppy joes and quesadillas, you're not going to put on a few pounds?'" Cafero said.
Many state schools have already taken steps on their own. Last year, New Haven Public Schools decided to make Nathan Hale Elementary School junk-free, taking soda out of vending machines and serving baked versions of french fries and tater tots. The initiative expanded this year.
Some are unconvinced the initiative is the right way to approach the obesity problem. Rep. Konstantinos Diamantis, D-Bristol, said he weighed 240 pounds as an eighth-grader and couldn't play sports because of weight limits. He lost the weight through willpower.
"There's a host of things that go into it," he said. "Banning a particular food isn't going to teach a child a proper form of nutrition."
Copyright © 2005 The Associated Press