Buoyed by a President and Secretary of Agriculture who have voiced their support for healthier school foods, health groups say this is the year Congress should take action. Today, Representative Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) is introducing a bill that would get junk foods out of schools once and for all. The bill is likely to be addressed when Congress reauthorizes the Child Nutrition Act, which expires this year.

Current federal law only prohibits the sale of narrowly defined “foods of minimal nutritional value” in the cafeteria during meal times. But the nutrition standards for those foods haven’t been updated in 30 years, during which time obesity rates in children have tripled. The Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act would have the U.S. Department of Agriculture update the nutrition standards for foods sold alongside school meals in cafeterias, vending machines, school stores, and elsewhere. Those standards would apply throughout the school day and everywhere on campus–important reforms in an era where “multi-purpose rooms” are replacing cafeterias and vending machines line hallways.

While the typical school lunch is reasonably balanced, according to CSPI, children may replace it with, or add to it, sugary sports drinks, pizza, French fries, Snickers bars, Cheetos, or other nutritionally poor choices from a la carte, vending, and other sources.

“Despite pockets of progress in some states and school systems, most schools make junk food readily available to children,” says CSPI nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan. “But junk food in schools helps fuel an epidemic of obesity and diabetes in children, and it undercuts the considerable federal investment we make in the healthy school lunch program.”

“Current nutrition standards keep some junk food out of our schools but let other junk food in through the back door. Today, donuts are allowed but lollipops are not. Cookies are fine, but breath mints are banned. This doesn’t make any sense,” Woolsey says. “It undermines the federal nutrition standards for meals if students spend their money on unhealthy options. It also undermines the role of parents who give lunch money to their children expecting them to eat something wholesome and nutritious and their money is spent on unhealthy options instead. That’s why I introduced this legislation, and I look forward to working with my colleagues to get it signed into law.”

USDA’s definition of foods of minimal nutritional value hasn’t changed since 1979. The Carter Administration’s definition was focused on making sure foods sold in schools had five percent or more of the recommended daily intake levels of protein, vitamin C, calcium, and other nutrients. However, that definition included no maximum amounts for calories, saturated fat, or sodium–all of which children now consume too much of. As a result, innocuous products like seltzer water or breath mints are forbidden, while ice cream bars and donuts are perfectly acceptable.

“Today, we need to reorient food policies toward preventing obesity, diabetes, and other diet-related diseases that might result in this generation of children living shorter lives than their parents,” Wootan says.

Besides CSPI and the National PTA, the legislation is backed by a powerful coalition of medical, health, and children’s advocacy groups, including the American Dental Association, American Diabetes Association, American Dietetic Association, American Heart Association, Partnership for Prevention, Save the Children, and School Nutrition Association. The bill has 88 cosponsors.

When in the Senate, President Obama had his own bill to get junk food out of schools, and his proposed budget announced last week includes a $1-billion-a-year increase for child nutrition, which includes the school lunch and breakfast programs and WIC. That’s on top of $100 million included in the economic stimulus package to upgrade equipment in school cafeterias, which in many cases means replacing fryolators with ovens, or better refrigeration to accommodate more fresh fruits and vegetables.

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