Panel Urges Schools To Replace Junk Foods

By Sally Squires
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 26, 2007

A prestigious scientific panel urged the government yesterday to ban soft drinks, sugary snacks and other junk food from schools, saying the typical fare available in vending machines, at snack bars and at class birthday parties is contributing to the growing obesity of America's children.

The Institute of Medicine report, which Congress requested, said less-nutritious items should be replaced with healthier stuff such as fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products. It emphasized adding snacks with more whole grains and less sodium, saturated fat and added sugar.

Federal officials recently proposed raising the nutritional standards for school lunches or breakfasts, but the recommendations issued yesterday are the first national attempt to address the healthfulness of "competitive" school foods -- snacks and drinks that often are sold to raise money for schools.

In place of potato chips, chocolate bars and other popular snacks, the report said, schools should sell healthier options such as apples, carrot sticks, raisins, low-sugar cereals, whole-grain tortilla chips, granola bars and nonfat yogurt with no more than 30 grams of added sugar.

The proposed guidelines also urge limiting the calorie content of snacks and drinks -- to no more than 200 per portion -- and switching to items that contain no trans fats, lower levels of sugar and sodium, and no more than 35 percent of calories from fat, less than 10 percent from saturated fat.

The report by the institute, a branch of the National Academies, also urged eliminating sports drinks, soft drinks and caffeinated drinks. Instead, the guidelines call for schools to provide free, safe drinking water or give students the opportunity to buy nonfat or low-fat milk or limited amounts of 100 percent juice.

After hours, high schools would be allowed to sell less nutritious snacks and drinks such as baked potato chips, whole-wheat pretzels, seltzer water or caffeine-free diet soda.

But the committee recommended against making fortified water available and urged that sports drinks be available only at the discretion of coaches and for students who engage in an hour or more of vigorous activity.

The recommendations will help the food industry by providing "a uniform set of guidelines that can be accepted throughout states and agencies for competitive school foods," said Dennis M. Bier, chairman of the institute's Food and Nutrition Board and a member of the committee of experts that drafted the report.

The Agriculture Department, which sets the standards for school lunches, has no authority to regulate snacks, but nine senators are co-sponsoring the Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act to give the USDA that power. If passed, school districts would be required to meet the guidelines or face fines or loss of school-lunch funding.

"For the first time, we have gold standard recommendations for school nutrition standards from one of America's most distinguished scientific bodies," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), a lead sponsor of the bill with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). "And as it turns out, they are just common sense -- promoting fruit and vegetable consumption and also seeking to reduce things like calories, fat and sodium."

The measure has been endorsed by the American Cancer Society, the American Dietetic Association, the National PTA and the National Education Association. A matching bill is expected to be filed in the House.

"Legislation is never easy," said Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group that supports the bill. "We have more than 100 health groups signed on. We're getting education groups. We're getting good responses from Republican offices, and we've started negotiations with the food industry that probably lays out standards that they can live with. . . . I think that the prospects are pretty good."

"Children eat 30 to 50 percent of their calories at schools on school days," Wootan said. "When parents send their kids to school with lunch money, they don't want to worry that it will be spent on Cheetos and Gatorade."

Susan K. Neely, president of the American Beverage Association, said the report "puts an important focus on school nutrition, and we agree. In fact, our industry is already changing the mix of products in schools across America to cut calories and control portion sizes.

But J. Justin Wilson, an analyst for one food-industry group, the Center for Consumer Freedom, called the recommendations "misguided food regulation" that threatens to make class birthday parties a thing of the past.

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