A bill aimed at curbing sales of junk food in public schools was approved yesterday by the Maryland Senate as two lawmakers renewed their push for healthier snack options, saying that recent efforts by state education officials to strengthen nutrition guidelines do not go far enough.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George's), mirrors a requirement by the State Department of Education that schools establish nutrition policies by Jan. 31. But the legislation also mandates that schools attach timers to vending machines that would shut them down automatically.
This week, health advocates lined up to support a bill from Del. Joan F. Stern (D-Montgomery) that would make the state's guidelines on fat and sugar content mandatory for all grade levels.
The state recommends that elementary and middle schools limit snacks to nine grams of total fat, two grams of saturated fat and 15 grams of sugar. It also encourages schools not to sell foods of "minimal nutritional value" -- mostly candy and soda -- until the end of the school day.
Pinksy's bill still must pass the House, and Stern's bill has yet to make it out of committee. The two legislators have unsuccessfully introduced similar bills before.
Regulating junk food has become a hot-button issue in school districts across the country as they struggle to consider healthy eating and the often-hefty revenue from vending machines and soft drink companies.
According to a 2000 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 43 percent of elementary schools, 89 percent of middle schools and 98 percent of high schools have vending machines or concession stands.
Last year, Arkansas became the first state to pass legislation banning the machines from elementary schools. Colorado, Louisiana, Tennessee and Washington approved bills last year that limited junk food sales, according to the National Conference of State Legislators.
Stern said her bill last year languished in committee after state education officials vowed that they would address the issue. But when the state school board voted on new nutrition guidelines last month, it decided to make them voluntary.
State education officials, along with the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, are opposing this year's bills.
State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said the nutrition guidelines traditionally fall under the purview of school districts, but that she would survey progress among school districts over the summer and report the results to the State Board of Education by September.
"We're very comfortable with the guidelines and think there will be implementation," she said. "We have a seriousness of purpose."
Pinsky and health advocates do not believe that will be enough to curb what the U.S. surgeon general has dubbed an epidemic of childhood obesity. "I'm extremely disappointed," Pinsky said. "I thought the superintendent and the board were on board to make this a requirement."
State Board of Education member David F. Tufaro said that he favored more stringent nutrition standards but that he felt that students should learn how to make healthy choices.
"Legislators tend to think everything has to have a piece of law associated with an activity," he said. "I think it has to be embedded in your training and your behavior."