Public school students may no longer be able to hit the school vending machines for their daily fix of Oreo cookies or cheese danish, if a bill introduced last week in Congress becomes law.
The legislation is designed to curb the spread of childhood obesity by requiring the Department of Agriculture to update the minimum nutritional standards for food sold in school vending machines, at snack bars, and in a la carte lines in the school cafeteria.
Those regulations, which have not been retooled in nearly 30 years, require food in school vending machines to contain at least 5 percent of recommended daily nutrients. Under the rules, snacks with virtually no nutritional value, such as sugary colas and Cracker Jacks, are not permitted to be sold in schools. But the rules leave room for plenty of high-fat but minimally nutritious options, including donuts and french fries, to lure students away from healthier options.
“Many American kids are at school for two meals a day. But instead of a nutritious school breakfast and lunch in the cafeteria, they are enticed to eat Cheetos and a Snickers bar from the vending machines in the hallway,” Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, one of the measure’s sponsors, said in a statement.
The bill would call for the Agriculture Department to consider factors that lead to childhood obesity, including calories, portion size, and fat content, in drafting the new regulations. The bill was introduced on April 6 by Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., as well as Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Sen. Harkin, who has worked on this issue for more than a decade. So far, none of the bills he has put forth has been enacted.
The School Nutrition Association in Washington was among the groups urging Congress to address the caloric content of school snacks.
“It makes no sense to have one set of rules for the cafeteria and another set for the hallway,” wrote SNA President Ruth Jonen in a letter to Sen. Harkin. “Failure to apply the same rules to all foods sold/served on campus throughout the school day will erode the efforts schools are making to ensure the nutritional quality and value of school meals.”
To assuage potential parent panic, Sen. Murkowski noted that the bill would not apply to food brought in by parents or sold by school groups. “This does not mean mom cannot bring in a birthday cake … or the chess club can not hold a fund-raiser with baked treats,” she said.
A version of this article appeared in the April 12, 2006 edition of Education Week