Today may not be the best day for us to feel more anxiety about how much junk food our kids eat. My daughters could take a bath in all the loot they scored last night.

(Mike Hutmacher/Associated Press)

Into this sugar crash comes a newly released report from the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project on how much access kids have to junk food every day.

Out of Balance” examined snack food availability at secondary schools across the country. The surveys did not include cafeteria breakfast and lunch menus, which have already received much scrutiny and have improved this year with the introduction of more nutritionally sound federal standards.

It’s the vending machines and other food venues on school campuses that are like the Wild West. These are now especially popular as students try to find alternatives to the healthier cafeteria options.

This report finds that, more often than not, those kids can easily find that junk. For instance, in 49 states, fewer than half of secondary schools sold any fruits and vegetables outside the cafeteria.

The report echoes a similar attack by a group of former military leaders a month ago. Back then, a group of retired U.S. generals took to a National Press Club podium to blame school access to junk food for ruining the health of potential military recruits.

Those folks memorably pointed out that the amount of junk food purchased and consumed within schools in the United States in a single year is the equivalent to 90,000 tons of candy bars, or more than the weight of an aircraft carrier.

This new report notes that for a few years, with the intense focus on the childhood obesity epidemic, some school stores and officials who choose vending machines did actually improve the offerings. Researchers, however, have found those efforts stalled.

Researchers blame the poor progress on the lack of universal standards. Guidelines tend to vary by locale, with some states (like West Virginia) cutting down on soda options while others (like Utah) still serving them up readily.

Maryland ranked as the best fruit vendor in this region, which is depressing because the state won a rank of 20 because only 31 percent of its secondary schools offered fruit as a snack option. Virginia was just behind with a slightly lower percentage of schools offering fruit.

The District ranked as one of the least healthy systems, with just under 20 percent allowing kids to buy a piece of fruit outside the cafeteria. It was better than its 7 percent a few years ago.

The report concludes that change must come from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Researchers cite a study published in Pediatrics this summer that found “children and teens in states with strong policies restricting the sale of less-healthy snack foods in schools gained less weight over a three-year period than those living in states with no such standards. Additionally, students who were overweight or obese in fifth grade were less likely to remain so by the time they reached eighth grade if they lived in a state with a strong snack food guideline than if they lived in a state without one.”

The Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project, which is supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, goes on to recommend that the USDA establish:

●a requirement that [secondary] schools sell healthier items from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans list of foods to encourage;

●age-appropriate calorie limits for items sold individually;

●a maximum total calorie limit on sugar and fats;

●incremental reductions in sodium over 10 years to achieve full alignment with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans; and

●restrictions on calories and serving size for all beverages.

What do you think about the junk food options in schools? What might your child think? Are federal guidelines the answer?

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