Senator Wants Limits On Schoolyard Junk Food

Jim Burns | July 7, 2008 | 8:19pm EDT
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( - A Vermont senator believes too many public school students are being sold what he considers "unhealthy drinks and snacks" during lunch in school and he wants the Agriculture Department to tighten up its regulations on such sales.

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced legislation that would give Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman more authority to restrict soda sales in schools. His legislation would "tighten" current federal regulations under the National School Lunch Program.

Current law bars schools from selling unhealthy drinks and snacks during meals, but Leahy believes some schools are skirting the regulations by giving away soft drinks during lunch.

"When it comes to our kids and nutrition, some schools are saying one thing and doing another. Schools teach kids all about the four food groups and the importance of a balanced diet, yet many schools are not only allowing, but encouraging kids to fill up on sodas and empty calorie snacks instead of taxpayer-funded and nutritionally-balanced school meals," Leahy said in a statement.

Leahy's bill would also mandate that "sodas and other unhealthy snacks not be sold or given to students in school during meals," and would require the Agriculture Secretary to ban or limit soda and candy sales or donations before lunch.

"Schoolchildren are a captive market for soda vendors. Our kids pay the price when we give soft drink companies free reign to market their products in schools," Leahy said.

Even though she doesn't like sodas being sold in schools, Eagle Forum President Phyllis Schlafly said she couldn't support Leahy's bill because the issue isn't a federal matter.

"I don't think the federal government ought to be mandating things like that. It should be left up to the local school boards. But school boards should not indulge in all that kind of commercialism. I think it's an outrage the way schools have put machines in schools. Some of them even encourage the students to buy it because they've made a commitment that they will sell so many bottles or cans," Schlafly said in a telephone interview.

"Some schools," Schlafly added, "even let the kids even bring the soda in the schoolroom and I think it's an outrage. But the federal government should be doing more important things like dealing with China and cutting taxes. I just don't think they ought to be telling schools what they should be doing."

But Dr. Diane Ravitch, a New York University professor and former assistant secretary of education during the George H.W. Bush administration, gave Leahy's bill high marks.

"I think it's a great idea. I've never understood why the schools started selling junk foods in the first piece. I think that to the extent that the Agriculture Department has anything to say about what happens in terms of school lunches that they should say that the federal money shouldn't be used to supply junk foods to the schools. If the schools choose to have junk food, it should be a conscious decision, where parents are consulted," Ravitch said.

Leahy also said he had a recent Agriculture Department study that found that "sodas contribute to child obesity and diabetes, both of which are on the rise." The senator also noted that "other studies have found that sodas put teens at a greater risk for osteoporosis and tooth decay."

Co-sponsoring Leahy's bill are Sens. James Jeffords (R-Vt.), Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.).

The U.S. Department of Agriculture had no comment, according to spokesperson Jean Peters.

The National School Lunch Program is a federally assisted meal program operating in more than 96,000 public and nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions.

It provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to nearly 27 million children each school day, according to USDA. The program was established under the National School Lunch Act, signed by President Harry Truman in 1946.

The USDA, through its Food and Nutrition Service, administers the program at the federal level. At the state level, the school lunch program is usually administered by state education agencies, which operate the program through agreements with local school districts.

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