Nearly 30 years ago, the last time the Department of Agriculture addressed standards for snacks sold in schools alongside the federally subsidized breakfast and lunch programs, childhood obesity was a far less recognized issue than it is today.
The same is true for serving sizes, calories, fat, sugar, and sodium. The department’s regulations are silent on all those issues.
A proposed amendment to a major farm bill in Congress, backed both by health-advocacy groups and food-and beverage-industry giants, would have updated the nutrition standards for snacks to meet today’s concerns. But the amendment was dropped last month in last-minute wrangling over the $286 billion bill.
The bill “remains a top priority for us in terms of addressing childhood obesity and childhood nutrition. It’s something that parents are asking for,” said Margo Wootan, the director of nutrition policy for the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest. “I think the time has come. This just wasn’t the venue.”
The amendment, dubbed the Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act , was sponsored by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. The measure was removed from consideration on Dec. 14 before the Senate went on to approve the farm bill.
Though the school nutrition measure had powerful supporters, it also had lost support with a key group, the School Nutrition Association, which represents school food-service directors nationwide.
Though an early proponent of the bill, the Alexandria, Va., group changed its stance because the measure was not strict enough, in its view. It did not offer uniform national nutrition standards, would have allowed items such as sports drinks to be sold in some areas of schools but not in others, and offered no funding to offset the costs associated with the new rules.
The Agriculture Department currently regulates the types of foods that may be sold under the federally subsidized school breakfast and lunch programs. Though the department’s regulations for foods sold in such places as cafeteria a la carte lines, vending machines, and school stores are not as stringent as its rules addressing the school meals programs, many states and school districts have established tougher standards on their own.
The school nutrition bill had also been introduced in the last Congress, but never made it out of committee. Sen. Harkin told that he is not giving up on the measure.
“We have a lot of support for it,” he said on Dec. 14, the day the farm bill passed the Senate.
Among the changes that would have been required under the measure: Serving sizes for beverages could have been no larger than 8 ounces in elementary and middle schools and 12 ounces in high school, except for water; and only low-fat or nonfat milk could have been sold. (“Congress Gets Involved in School Beverage Debate,” Oct. 10, 2007.)
Meanwhile, snacks could not have had more than 180 calories per serving size in elementary and middle school and 200 calories in high school; and sugars could not not have made up more than 35 percent of a snack by weight.
The bill would have authorized certain exceptions, such as foods sold at school sports events and the school-approved sale of snacks as fundraisers by student clubs.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group often at odds with the beverage and snack-food industries, had negotiated with companies for six months on the measure, and has supported such changes for several years, said Ms. Wootan. Among the industry leaders that had supported the measure were the Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo Inc., and General Mills Inc.
The Senate farm bill, which now must be reconciled with a separate measure passed by the House in July, does include an expansion of the Fruit and Vegetable Pilot Program, which encourages consumption of produce by elementary schoolchildren, particularly in low-income areas, by providing free fruit and vegetable snacks.
The program was included as a pilot in the 2002 farm bill, and the Senate’s current bill would make the program permanent and fund participating schools in all 50 states. The $15 million-a-year program now operates in 375 schools in 14 states and three American Indian tribal organizations.
The Senate farm bill also includes an amendment, sponsored by Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., that would create a $10 million pilot program for high-poverty schools to incorporate hands-on vegetable gardening and nutrition education programs into the curriculum. Schools with at least 50 percent of their students eligible for free or reduced-price meals would be eligible.
A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2008 edition of Education Week as School Nutrition Measure Is Dropped From Farm Bill