Student Well-Being

Calif. Says ‘No’ to School Junk-Food Sales

By Linda Jacobson — September 27, 2005 4 min read
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California students won’t be sipping sugary sodas or munching on chips during school hours much longer, thanks to a new statewide ban on certain snacks and beverages in schools.

The package of school nutrition laws, signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger this month, is one of the strictest pieces of school-food legislation in the country because it extends restrictions to high schools.

Schools have until July 1, 2007, to phase out half the sodas sold in their schools and replace them with more-nutritious options, such as milk, juices, water, and sports drinks. By 2009, the rest of the sodas will have to be replaced. Some districts state have already instituted similar policies.

“For years, school food-service employees have been trying to get students to make healthier choices,” Rhonda DeVaux, the president of the California School Nutrition Association, said. “The statistics on all the obesity really drive home that children need to be making better selections.”

California, like other states, has seen a rise in childhood obesity, Gov. Schwarzenegger said at a Sept. 15 “fitness summit,” where he signed the bills into law.

“One out of three kids, one out of four teenagers is overweight or at risk,” the former bodybuilder said. “This leads to major medical problems like diabetes, heart disease, sleep disorders, depression, and it robs our kids of a healthy childhood.”

Proposed by Sen. Martha M. Escuita, a Democrat, the legislation stipulates that individual food items sold in schools can have no more than 250 calories, and that juice drinks have to contain at least 50 percent real juice and have no added sweeteners.

In addition to the restrictions on food and drinks sold in schools, the California legislation requires that more fresh fruits and vegetables be available in school meals. In his fiscal 2006 budget, the Republican governor included $18.2 million to help pay for more of those menu items—something that Ms. DeVaux said school nutrition employees were “very happy” about.

Action Elsewhere

While California has a reputation for being home to health-conscious citizens who shop at organic food markets, it’s not the only state trying to instill healthier eating habits in children by regulating what they can buy at school.

Legislators in 38 states considered proposals on school nutrition this year, and 17 of those states enacted new laws, according to Amy Winterfeld, a program principal who works on health issues at the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures.

For example, a new law in Kentucky prohibits all deep-fried foods in schools by the beginning of 2006-07 school year. And in Maryland, all county boards of education are required by Jan. 1 to establish their own nutrition policies for food and drinks available to students during the school day.

Laws in several other states include new provisions requiring students to have a certain amount of physical activity each week.

While state laws focusing on school nutrition and physical education are not new, legislators in recent years have deliberately tailored bills toward reducing obesity rates and educating students to adopt healthier lifestyles. Lawmakers also hope to cut rising medical costs resulting from conditions associated with obesity.

The availability of popular soft drinks and snacks on school grounds has soared in recent years, as schools have turned to vending-machine profits as an additional source of revenue when budgets have been stretched thin.

Food-service programs then began to compete with clubs, sports teams, and other school groups selling doughnuts and assorted other goodies by offering a la carte menu items, such as chips and candy, said Erik Peterson, a spokesman for the School Nutrition Association, a professional association in Alexandria, Va., that represents school food-service employees. While federal nutrition guidelines exist for school meals, such additional selections in cafeterias have been exempt from such regulations, he said.

Revenue Impact

School food programs, which typically must be financially self-sustaining and usually don’t receive local district money, have also counted on a la carte items to help make up the difference between how much schools are reimbursed by the federal government and the actual meal costs.

Mr. Peterson added that the nutrition association has been advocating a “level playing field” of nutrition guidelines for all food sold at schools, which is essentially what the California law seeks.

Many school principals and administrators in charge of programs such as sports and bands that rely on extra revenue sources have expressed concern, however, that they won’t be able to make up for the lost money.

A recently released report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office on so-called competitive food sales in schools showed that the 30 percent of high schools generating the most income from such products each raised more than $125,000 a year.

Peter Cahn, a legislative advocate for the California Association of Directors of Activities, said that his group did not oppose the state’s new legislation as it has in the past, but said that he hopes Ms. Escuita, the governor, and other officials “will work with us” to come up with funding methods to replace lost funds.

Mr. Peterson of the School Nutrition Association said that studies conducted at the district level have shown that when junk-food treats are first replaced with healthier items, revenue does indeed drop off significantly at first, but comes back over time, and even increases.

A version of this article appeared in the September 28, 2005 edition of Education Week as Calif. Says ‘No’ to School Junk-Food Sales

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