Legislature passes bill targeting childhood obesity

Junk food sales curbed in schools

State House News Service / July 23, 2010

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A bill to restrict the sale of high-calorie, high-fat, and high-sodium snacks in schools has hit Governor Deval Patrick’s desk and could be law within 10 days.

The legislation, meant to limit childhood obesity, cleared its final procedural votes yesterday.

Under the bill, schools would be encouraged to sell nonfried fruit and vegetables, whole grain products, nonfat or low-fat dairy products, noncarbonated water, and juice with no additives.

The bill would require plain water to be available to students all day at no cost. The legislation also encourages schools to join with local sellers of produce and seafood to cut costs and boost the Massachusetts economy.

The guidelines on foods that schools may sell would be drawn from a 2007 report by the Institute of Medicine, which determined that schools should prohibit foods containing more than 35 percent of their calories from fat, fewer than 10 percent from saturated fat, fewer than 35 percent from sugar, and less than 200 milligrams of sodium per serving.

During the state Senate’s final action on the bill, Senator Susan Fargo, Democrat of Lincoln and cochairwoman of the Public Health Committee, said childhood obesity has “more than doubled in recent years.’’

Senator Robert Hedlund, Republican of Weymouth, said children are “constantly bombarded’’ by advertisements for junk food.

Supporters hailed the bill’s final passage, saying it “takes an important step to combat childhood obesity, create positive learning environments, and promote Massachusetts agriculture.’’

“The first job of our schools is to create a healthy environment where kids can thrive,’’ Valerie Bassett, executive director of the Massachusetts Public Health Association, said in a statement. “This bill is an absolutely essential element of winning the battle against childhood obesity.’’

Proponents argue that childhood obesity is now so severe that the youngest generation of children will probably live shorter lives than their parents.

According to a 2008 Department of Public Health report, of 1 million Massachusetts adults, about 1 in 5 was obese, and 3 million were above a healthy weight. The report found that a third of high school and middle school students in Massachusetts between ages 10 and 17 were overweight or obese, outpacing national averages, with more obesity among low-income, black, and Hispanic students.

Versions of the bill have been pending for years.

In 2003, Governor Mitt Romney told reporters: “I certainly hope that we would have quality nutritious food in our schools. Does that mean that junk food shouldn’t be in canteens and so forth? I’ve got to admit I don’t think that’s a step that we’d necessarily have to take. A hamburger now and then isn’t going to hurt you. A Snickers bar now and then isn’t going to hurt you. But if it becomes part of the school diet, that would be a real problem.’’

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