Junk Foods Get Kicked Out Of Schools

A generation ago, the book Why Johnny Can't Read voiced the then national furor about low reading scores among American schoolchildren. Why Johnny Is Fat might be the book title more apropos to today's concern, a national anxiety over diet in America's schools.

In the last two decades, obesity in U.S. children ages 6 to 19 has doubled. This may relate to the number of snacks and desserts sold in schools, sales of which have increased dramatically in the same period. Junk food sales have provided an important source of income for many schools struggling to cover the cost of extracurricular activities and some essential programs. Nationwide, schools receive $750 million a year from the sale of vending-machine snacks in their cafeterias and hallways.

Parents, educators and state and national lawmakers are now trying to prevent access to junk food in schools. In 2001, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) upgraded its nutrition policy, which now prohibits schools from serving foods of minimal nutritional value (FMNV) during meal times. The USDA directed all state agencies to enforce FMNV requirements starting with the 2002-2003 school year. Specifically, vending machines that serve these foods and are located in cafeterias are to be shut off during meal periods.

Although the policy sounds fairly stringent, the FMNV category contains only empty-calorie foods, such as chewing gum, hard candy and soft drinks. Foods that provide even minimal nutrients per serving, such as chocolate bars, Twinkies and potato chips, are still in. The regulation also doesn't account for vending machines outside cafeterias.

Some school districts and states are taking further steps. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have passed laws stricter than the USDA regulations. New York, New Jersey and Maryland now prohibit the sale of FMNV until the afternoon following lunch. In Kentucky, the state's largest school district is pushing the legislature to pass a bill that would eliminate candy bars, doughnuts and other high-fat, low-nutrition foods from cafeterias, vending machines and school stores. Earlier this year, one of the largest school districts in the nation, Oakland School District in California, implemented a nutrition policy that banishes from elementary schools all vending machines that sell sodas and low-nutrition foods and limits the sale of carbonated drinks in middle schools. In October, California Governor Gray Davis signed a bill into law that extends the Oakland district's ban to all schools in the state.

By the 2002-2003 school year, vending machines in every public school in Texas will have been removed from all student eating areas. "In the future," says Adrienne Sobolak, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, "many schools will be looking into replacing FMNV products in vending machines with healthier alternative products."

—Kristine Merrill