The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release
Contact: Phone: 202-332-9110

Congress to Tackle Junk Food in Schools

Legislators, Health Groups Aim to Update Carter-Era Nutrition Standards


Buoyed by a President and Secretary of Agriculture
who have voiced their support for healthier school foods, health groups
say this is the year Congress should take action. Today, Representative
Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) is introducing a bill that would get junk foods out of schools once and for all. The bill is likely to be addressed when Congress reauthorizes the Child Nutrition Act, which expires this year.

Current federal law only prohibits the sale of narrowly defined "foods of minimal nutritional value"
in the cafeteria during meal times. But the nutrition standards for
those foods haven't been updated in 30 years, during which time obesity
rates in children have tripled. The Child Nutrition Promotion and
School Lunch Protection Act would have the U.S. Department of
Agriculture update the nutrition standards for foods sold alongside
school meals in cafeterias, vending machines, school stores, and
elsewhere. Those standards would apply throughout the school day, and
everywhere on campus-important reforms in an era where "multi-purpose
rooms" are replacing cafeterias and vending machines line hallways.

While the typical school lunch is reasonably balanced, according to CSPI,
children may replace it with, or add to it, sugary sports drinks,
pizza, French fries, Snickers bars, Cheetos, or other nutritionally
poor choices from a la carte, vending, and other sources.

"Despite pockets of progress in some states and school
systems, most schools make junk food readily available to children,"
said CSPI nutrition policy
director Margo G. Wootan. "But junk food in schools helps fuel an
epidemic of obesity and diabetes in children. And, it undercuts the
considerable federal investment we make in the healthy school lunch

"Current nutrition standards keep some junk food out of our
schools but let other junk food in through the back door. Today,
doughnuts are allowed but lollipops are not. Cookies are fine, but
breath mints are banned. This doesn't make any sense," Woolsey said.
"It undermines the federal nutrition standards for meals if students
spend their money on unhealthy options. It also undermines the role of
parents who give lunch money to their children expecting them to eat
something wholesome and nutritious and their money is spent on
unhealthy options instead. That's why I introduced this legislation,
and I look forward to working with my colleagues to get it signed into

USDA's definition of foods of minimal nutritional value
hasn't changed since 1979. The Carter Administration's definition was
focused on making sure foods sold in schools had five percent or more
of the recommended daily intake levels of protein, vitamin C, calcium,
and other nutrients. However, that definition included no maximum
amounts for calories, saturated fat, or sodium-all of which children
now consume too much of. As a result, innocuous products like seltzer
water or breath mints are forbidden, while ice cream bars and doughnuts
are perfectly acceptable.

"Look, you can see how officials 30 years ago might have
been concerned about whether our children were getting enough
riboflavin or niacin," Wootan said. "Today, we need to reorient food
policies toward preventing obesity, diabetes, and other diet-related
diseases that might result in this generation of children living
shorter lives than their parents."

"Many of the foods being sold to our students on school
grounds undermine federal investment in healthy school meals, nutrition
education, and the lifelong lessons that parents teach their children
about healthy eating habits," said National PTA President Jan Harp
Domene. "Families and local leaders have successfully advocated to
remove unhealthy alternatives from some schools, but it is time for
national leadership on this issue."

Besides CSPI and the National PTA, the legislation is backed
by a powerful coalition of medical, health, and children's advocacy
groups including the American Dental Association, American Diabetes
Association, American Dietetic Association, American Heart Association,
Partnership for Prevention, Save the Children, and School Nutrition
Association. The bill has 88 cosponsors.

When in the Senate, President Obama had his own bill to get
junk food out of schools, and his proposed budget announced last week
includes a $1-billion-a-year increase
for child nutrition, which includes the school lunch and breakfast
programs and WIC. That's on top of $100 million included in the
economic stimulus package to upgrade equipment in school cafeterias,
which in many cases means replacing fryolators with ovens, or better
refrigeration to accommodate more fresh fruits and vegetables.

Some states and localities have acted on their own to
improve school foods, and voluntary agreements, like one brokered in
2006 by former President Bill Clinton, have helped further. Still, the
majority of drinks and snacks sold in schools are of poor nutritional
quality and two-thirds of states have weak or no policies on school nutrition.

Since 1971, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has been a strong advocate for nutrition and health, food safety, alcohol policy, and sound science.