June 2, 2004
Providing Healthier Alternatives at SchoolKids today face a minefield of nutritional risks, yet with advertising and marketing of unhealthy foods at the saturation point, most are blissfully ignorant of the dangers. One survey found that scarcely any school-age children and adolescents meet all scientific recommendations for a sound diet.
It is no wonder the American Academy of Pediatrics calls obesity an unprecedented burden on children’s health. Fifteen percent of U.S. children and teenagers are overweight -- triple the rate of 35 years ago, and a higher percentage than in any other industrialized country.
In recent years, our public schools have been inundated by candy, soft drinks and salty and high-fat snacks. We call this “junk food” for good reasons. These foods compete with and undercut federally supported school lunches and breakfasts, which are required to meet USDA standards for sound, balanced nutrition.
Schools are by no means the only place kids obtain unhealthy foods, but studies show they have become a major source. The U.S. General Accounting Office found that vending machines, snack bars or other foods compete with school lunches and breakfasts in 43 percent of elementary schools, 74 percent of middle schools and 98 percent of high schools.
Not surprisingly, vending machines and other sources of junk food have a clear negative impact on students’ nutrition. A recent eye-opening study tracked a group of fourth-graders, who had only USDA-backed school lunches, into fifth grade, where they gained access to school vending machines, snack bars and other food sources. As fifth-graders, they consumed 33 percent less fruit, 42 percent less vegetables and 35 percent less milk than they did the previous year as fourth-graders. Plus, they ate 68 percent more fried vegetables and drank 62 percent more soft drinks and other sweetened beverages.
The widespread peddling of unhealthy foods in schools is selling students short and undermining the best efforts of parents, educators and school meals personnel. Remarkably, as a result of a decades-old court decision and Congressional inaction, the Secretary of Agriculture is virtually powerless to prevent vending machine and similar sales from canceling out the good nutrition in USDA-sponsored school lunches and breakfasts. It makes no sense that USDA sets standards for those meals but cannot do so for nearly all other food sales in schools, so I have introduced legislation to close that loophole.
Other solutions are already under way. One is an initiative I authored in the 2002 farm bill to supply free fresh fruits and vegetables to students - starting with just over 100 schools, 25 of them in Iowa. Students, teachers and administrators all attest to the tremendous success of this pilot program in fostering healthier eating habits. I am working to extend and expand it.
Schools in Iowa and across the country are acting to offer healthier options in vending machines, snack bars and other outlets. In Minneapolis, for example, North Community High School worked with its local Coca-Cola representative and actually increased the number of vending machines from four to 16. However, 13 were stocked with water or 100 percent fruit/vegetable juice, two with sports drinks, and only one with soft drinks.
Schools understandably worry that such changes will cost them needed revenue. Yet in the Minneapolis example, while soft drink sales are down, beverage sales more than doubled, and water became the new best seller - yielding a nearly $4,000 increase in annual vending profits. A number of other schools have also maintained or increased vending-machine revenue after offering healthier fare. And to encourage more schools to offer healthier choices, I favor modest federal financial incentives.
It is time for Congress to step in and improve the health of our students. Given the option, many students will choose healthy snacks over candy bars and potato chips. With thoughtful planning, the federal government, state governments and local school districts can work to replace junk foods with enjoyable, healthier alternatives.
It is not a question of whether we can afford to improve nutrition at school; it is a question of whether we can afford not to.