Student Well-Being

Ban Junk Food, Sodas in Schools, Prominent Scientists Recommend

By Lesli A. Maxwell — May 01, 2007 4 min read
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Citing an alarming rise in childhood-obesity rates, a panel of prominent scientists says the government should ban most soft drinks, junk food, and other unhealthy food and beverage selections available in schools.

In a report released last week, the Institute of Medicine took direct aim at the food and drinks sold in on-campus vending machines, selections offered a la carte in cafeterias and school snack bars, and even the cupcakes and cookies that are often served by teachers and parents in classroom celebrations of birthdays and holidays.

The panel of scientists recommended that water, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products replace the chips, candy bars, sugary juices, and sodas found in many snack and beverage vending machines located on school campuses.

“Nutrition Standards for Foods in Schools: Leading the Way Toward Healthier Youth” and a fact sheet on the report are available from the National Academies Press.

The report, which was requested by Congress, represents the first attempt by federal officials to target the nutritional concerns surrounding the snacks and drinks that are often sold to raise money for schools. The Institute of Medicine is an arm of the prestigious National Academies.

Already, the lunches and breakfasts served by public schools through the National School Lunch Program must adhere to federal nutrition guidelines. A bipartisan group of senators is now pushing for legislation—the Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act—to empower the U.S. Department of Agriculture to regulate snacks available at schools. The USDA oversees the federal student lunch program.

‘Important First Step’

“The alarming increase in childhood-obesity rates has galvanized parents and schools across the nation to find ways to improve children’s diets and health, and we hope our report will assist that effort by setting standards for foods and beverages that have so far escaped any requirements,” Virginia A. Stallings, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania and the chairwoman of the 15-member committee that issued the report, said in a statement.

One school nutrition advocate said the institute’s report was “an important first step” to regulating the “competitive” foods found in many schools.

“But it’s not going to make a difference or do any good if these standards aren’t implemented,” said Janey Thornton, the president of the School Nutrition Association and the director of child-nutrition programs for the 14,000-student district in Hardin County, Ky. “There are already many schools that have made great strides in changing what is sold in vending machines and other venues in the school system, but there are still going to be many schools that won’t ever change unless it is mandated.”

Apples and Carrots

Restrictions on ‘Competitive Foods’

The panel recommends that only certain types of foods be permitted in schools, depending on students’ grade levels.

For all grade levels during and after the school day, in portion sizes that provide 200 calories or fewer:

• Individual fruits, such as apples or pear slices, or fruit cups packed in juice or water
• Vegetables, such as baby carrots
• Low-fat, low-salt whole-grain crackers or chips
• 8-ounce servings of low-fat or nonfat chocolate or strawberry milk with no more than 22 grams of sugars (the naturally occurring small amount of caffeine in chocolate milk is an allowed exception to the report’s caffeine standard)

For high school students only, and only after school, all in servings that provide 200 calories or fewer:

• Low-salt baked potato chips, crackers, and pretzels
• Caffeine-free, calorie-free, nonfortified soft drinks
• Ice cream bars low in sugar and fat

Items that do not meet the standards:

• Potato chips and pretzels that have too much sugar or salt
• Ice cream products that have too much fat

SOURCE: Institute of Medicine

Under the guidelines, schools should only sell apples, carrot sticks, raisins, yogurt, and other low-fat and nonfat snacks that have no more than 30 grams of added sugar. Candy bars and potato chips should be eliminated. The guidelines also urge limiting the number of calories for any snack or beverage to 200 per portion and say that any snacks containing trans fats or 35 percent of calories that come from fat should be axed.

The report calls for teachers to stop using any food as rewards for students and suggests that any snacks and beverages served as part of classroom celebration adhere to the guidelines.

For beverages, the institute recommended that plain water, low-fat and nonfat milk, and 100 percent fruit juices in limited amounts be made available.

Any caffeinated beverages should be banned during the school day for all students, the report says. Caffeine-free diet sodas and other low-calorie beverages that contain artificial sweeteners could be allowed, but only for high school students and only after school hours.

The panel also said sports drinks should be available only to those students who participate in one hour or more of “vigorous athletic activity” and “at the discretion of coaches.”

The American Beverage Association, which represents the largest makers of soft drinks and other nonalcoholic beverages, said it supported the panel’s recommendations on drinks that should be made available to students in elementary and middle schools.

“The [Institute of Medicine] report puts an important focus on school nutrition, and we agree,” Susan Neely, the president and chief executive officer of the association, said in a statement. “In fact, our industry is already changing the mix of products in schools across America to cut calories and control portion sizes.”

Last year, the soft drink industry called for a voluntary curb on selling sugary sodas and other high- calorie beverages to schools. In doing so, it released a set of guidelines that includes a restriction on selling fully sugared sodas in any schools. Unlike the institute’s guidelines, the industry-written standards do not restrict the availability of sports drinks and other low-calorie beverages to high school students.

“We feel we have such an opportunity in schools to teach children not only what they need to be eating, but why they need to be eating this way,” said Ms. Thornton of the School Nutrition Association. “That’s something they can use every day for the rest of their lives.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 02, 2007 edition of Education Week as Ban Junk Food, Sodas in Schools, Prominent Scientists Recommend

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