Support grows for limiting junk food in Mass. schools
A bill that would ban the sale of sugary drinks and junk food in school vending machines and school stores is gaining momentum in the Legislature, as Massachusetts combats a troubling rise in childhood obesity rates.
The House passed it in January, after nearly a decade of debate on similar bills that went nowhere. Now, Senate President Therese Murray has thrown her support behind the effort and is optimistic that members will embrace it in a scheduled Senate vote today.
“We haven’t heard anything negative from members,’’ Murray said in an interview. “Obviously, everyone is very alarmed about the high level of diabetes and obesity rates. It’s a crisis.’’
The bill is one of two the Senate will debate today that aim to foster a healthier learning environment for students. The other legislation sets out to prevent bullying at school and on the Internet.
Legislators say they are motivated by a string of reports in recent years that have revealed the magnitude of the childhood obesity problem. In Massachusetts, 1 in 3 school children was overweight or obese in 2008, up from 1 in 4 two years earlier, according to a report by the Massachusetts Health Council, a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy group.
“This is not the only piece of the puzzle to solve childhood obesity, but it’s a significant step forward,’’ said Representative Peter J. Koutoujian, a Waltham Democrat who has been trying to rid school vending machines of unhealthy foods for nearly a decade.
The legislation is the latest push by the state to combat childhood obesity, a top priority of Governor Deval Patrick. Public schools, complying with a new public health mandate, began measuring and weighing first-, fourth-, seventh-, and 10th-graders last fall so they can calculate their body mass index, a standard measurement used to analyze whether someone weighs too much or too little.
President Obama is urging Congress, as it overhauls the Childhood Nutrition Act, to set nutritional standards for food and beverage items sold outside lunch and breakfast programs.
Many Massachusetts school districts — such as Boston, Cohasset, and Lawrence — have taken the lead in replacing junk food in vending machines with more nutritional offerings, such as pretzels, rice cakes, and soy nuts. The movement prompted some education groups to question the need for a state law.
“I defy you to walk into a public school with a Coke machine that sells soda,’’ said Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts School Committee Association, which contends that school districts do not need additional state regulations. “School districts have made the changes. They’ve done what’s best for kids.’’
But public health specialists, many school food service directors, and some legislators say the state needs to step in to ensure the consistency of nutritional standards from one school to another and to force those schools that have been lax to shape up.
Health advocacy groups say they do not know how many schools still sell junk food.
“All we are asking schools to do is replace foods with high fat and sugar with healthier varieties,’’ said Susan Servais, executive director of the Massachusetts Health Council. “We know that poor nutrition really reduces a student’s ability to learn.’’
The bill would establish nutritional standards for items available in vending machines, school stores, and snack bars during school hours, and it would essentially ban the sale of soda, candy bars, fried chips, and even sports drinks, which health officials say can sometimes have more sugar than their carbonated counterparts.
Instead, the bill calls for selling nonfat and low-fat dairy products, nonfried fruits and vegetables, whole grains and related products, and beverages without additives or carbonation, nonsweetened water, and 100 percent fruit juices.
To build consensus for the bill, the nutritional standards would not apply to food-based fund-raisers, such as bake sales and concession stands, that are used to reduce or ward off fees for extracurricular activities. Koutoujian said some legislators were wary about limiting the ability of school districts to raise money in tough economic times.
The restrictions would also not apply to breakfast and lunch programs, which are overseen by the US Department of Agriculture.
Other components of the bill include encouraging schools to sell fruits and vegetables from local farmers, training school staff to detect eating disorders more effectively, and establishing a state commission to combat childhood obesity.
The American Beverage Association, which represents leading manufacturers and distributors of beverages, contends the Massachusetts bill goes too far, saying the restrictions should be looser for high school students.
“We believe high school students are old enough to make choices,’’ said Susan Neely, the association’s president and chief executive.
The association made a commitment three years ago to dramatically reduce consumption of its high-calorie drinks in public schools, setting up a partnership with the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation.
On Monday, the organizations released a report that found an 88 percent reduction in calories from beverages sent to schools since 2004.
In the past, the movement toward healthier vending options ran into opposition from school district leaders, who worried that vending-machine sales, which often generate revenue for districts, may plummet.
But districts that have made the switch say revenue has remained steady. Some of it, they say, is due to educating children at school and home about good nutrition.
“We used to say in the old days if we don’t sell [junk food] to them, they will buy it at a convenience store, but that’s not the case,’’ said Lynn Petrowski, food service director for Hingham and Cohasset and president of the School Nutrition Association of Massachusetts. “Kids buy the pretzels in the machines,’’ she said, “because they eat them at home.’’