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Partners:
  Gov't Concerned About School Snacks

By Philip Brasher
Associated Press Writer
Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2001; 5:27 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON To cut down on the soda, snacks and sweets children are eating, the government wants to require that all food sold in schools meets nutrition standards. That could mean an end to soda machines in the hall and candy and cookie sales to buy band uniforms.

The junk food that kids consume at school is contributing to obesity and other health problems, the Agriculture Department said in a report requested by Congress.

The department sets nutrition standards for school lunches and breakfasts, but it would take an act of Congress for it to begin regulating what is served outside the cafeterias.

"You walk outside the door of the cafeteria and the halls are lined with pop machines," said Marilyn Hurt, president of the American School Food Association. "There's nothing to prevent the student from spending their money on pop and candy instead of going in and getting a sandwich, milk and a piece of fruit."

The Agriculture Department says there are nutritional problems with both the snacks being offered in cafeterias and what's being offered in vending machines elsewhere in schools.

"When children are taught in the classroom about good nutrition and the value of healthy food choices but are surrounded by vending machines, snack bars, school stores and a la carte sales offering low nutrient density options, they receive the message that good nutrition is merely an academic exercise," the report says.

Soft drink contracts have become an ever-popular fund-raiser for cash-strapped schools, and cafeterias are also offering an increasing array of items that include snacks, desserts and flavored drinks.

Between 1996 and 1997, more than 30 percent of school districts increased the number of snacks they were offering in cafeterias, and 22 percent widened the array of desserts, a separate USDA report says.

No data were available on sodas sold outside cafeterias, but about 200 of the nation's 12,000 school districts have contracts that give soft drink companies exclusive rights to sell their products in schools, according to the National Soft Drink Association.

Charles County, Md., school officials recently signed a contract giving the Coca-Cola Co. exclusive rights to sell its products in county schools. In return, Coca-Cola gives the schools 45 percent of the sales and an additional $175,000 a year. The school system is using the money to eliminate a $50 per student athletic fee as well as fees for cooking and other vocational classes.

"This arrangement is really benefitting all of our students and their families," said Katie O'Malley-Simpson, a school district spokeswoman. She added that students are not allowed to use the machines until after lunch.

In school cafeterias, lunches and breakfasts must meet federal dietary guidelines that include limits on overall fat content. There also are minimal nutrition standards for drinks and snacks sold in cafeterias, although they are low enough that some candy bars and potato chips can meet them if they have a significant amount of at least one nutrient.

The Agriculture Department imposed restrictions on soft drinks and other items sold outside cafeterias in 1977, but a court overturned the rules in 1983.

Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, who took office last month, is reviewing the report's proposals, said spokesman Kevin Herglotz. The report was completed in the final days of the Clinton administration, sent to Congress and later posted on the department's Web site.

Although Congress asked for the latest report, school officials, beverage makers and the food industry are likely to object strongly to the department's recommendations.

"It's hard for me to see Congress getting into this issue or allowing that much power to go to the Department of Agriculture," said Vicki Rafel, the National PTA's vice president of legislation.

Sean McBride, a spokesman for the soft drink association, said it was the department's fault that students don't want to eat school lunches.

"The food is lousy, it takes too long to get through the line," he said. "This is an attempt to point the blame at anybody but who's responsible."

On the Net:

The report: http://www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/Lunch/ and then click on Foods Sold in Competition with USDA School Meal Programs.

American School Food Service Association: http://www.asfsa.org

National Soft Drink Association: http://www.nsda.org

Copyright 2001 The Associated Press

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