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Jewish World Review April 30, 2001 / 7 Iyar, 5761

Richard Powelson

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Consumer Reports

Critics say tougher rules needed against junk food in schools -- School officials and some members of Congress are pushing for stronger rules to control what children can buy from vending machines in public schools.

"Schools teach kids all about the four food groups and the importance of a balanced diet, yet many schools are not only allowing but encouraging kids to fill up on sodas and empty-calorie snacks instead of taxpayer-funded and nutritionally balanced school meals," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who is sponsoring a bill to give the U.S. Department of Agriculture more authority in this area.

In its final days, the Clinton administration offered a similar proposal but the Bush administration has put the matter under review for an indefinite period.

The federal government has a large annual investment in school-prepared meals. Last year it paid about $6.8 billion for meals to an average 27 million students.

Agriculture Department records show the government pays $2.02 to $2.19 for each free meal to low-income students, $1.62 to $1.79 for each reduced price meal for students with slightly higher family incomes, and 19 cents to 27 cents to subsidize meals for others and to keep the price attractive. Also, schools nationally share $650 million worth of federally donated food commodities.

Current federal regulations require snack and soft drink machines be turned off during school meal periods, but a number of schools do not comply and federal officials do not impose penalties, said spokeswoman Susan Acker of the USDA Food and Nutrition Service.

The American School Food Service Association says that there isn't enough compliance, and that too many schools allow vending machines with "low-nutrition, high-sugar snack foods and drinks" to compete with school-prepared meals.

"We should not teach one thing in the classroom, send one signal in the cafeteria and a different signal just down the hall," association president Marilyn Hurt told the Senate Agriculture Committee.

The group supports federal legislation to give the USDA authority to require that only nutritious food be sold at schools during breakfast and lunch periods.

Leahy said some schools donate soft drinks to students at mealtime to get around the current regulation barring sales. His bill would allow bans on donations, too.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Richard Lugar, R-Ind., "is very clear that there should be nutritious alternatives for kids at school." said spokesman Andy Fisher. "But as a practical matter, he has said it would be very difficult for the federal government to police all the things that go on in the local school district."

A growing number of school officials are allowing vending machines near cafeterias because the schools are guaranteed a big share of the profits. Six in 10 principals report signing contracts with soft drink companies, and one-third of schools said their regular budget was worse now than five years ago, according to a recent survey by the Trust to Reach Education Excellence.

School officials said their vending machine profits help pay for sports and physical education equipment, after-school activities, instructional materials, field trips, arts and theater programs and computers.

"Schools are between a rock and a hard place," said Drew Davis, a vice president at the National Soft Drink Association. "So partnering up with business is probably the only alternative available for them right now if they are not getting the money needed from taxpayers."

The easy access to snack foods and soft drinks at school is part of many students' obesity problem, the American School Food Service Association said. "Failure to confront this issue now could result in serious consequences down the road," said Hurt, the association's president.

But Davis said Americans as a whole have become more sedentary, causing more obesity. "That apparently also is true for teenagers. Five years ago less than 40 percent of seniors in high school had an opportunity to participate in physical education. Today the number is less than 27 percent," he said. "To all of a sudden blame soft drinks today as the reason (for obesity) - I find that a difficult leap of faith to make."

On the Web: - USDA Food and Nutrition Service:

- American School Food Service Association:

- National Soft Drink Association:

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