Friday, February 24, 2006

Bill Would Make School Snacks Healthier

Many years ago, when I was in school, our cafeteria served a single line of food. A student could either eat what was on the line, or bring his own food from home. And our drink choices were even smaller. We had milk, white milk.

We had no vending machines until my second year of high school. And then our only choice of food product was yellow apples or red apples. We couldn’t purchase soft drinks, candy, cookies, cakes, chips, or flavored milk.

Today, students have a wide variety of food choices, both in and out of the cafeteria. Many schools have soft drink vending machines scattered throughout the building. Other vending machines sell potato chips, candy, and other sugar-ridden snacks.

Cafeterias offer a la carte items, including French fries, fruit flavored drinks that are not much more than flavored sugar water, and ice cream.

There is a growing problem with childhood obesity in this country. Not everyone believes that kids are getting fat because of what they eat at school, but it does contribute.

For that reason, the Indiana General Assembly is prepared this year to finally pass legislation that will help address the issue of what kind of junk food school children are allowed to purchase.

The Indiana Senate last week passed Senate Bill 111 that would place restrictions on what kind of snacks qualify as healthy and what percentage of unhealthy snacks vending machines are allowed to contain.

The bill is a good first step, but it is far from perfect.

For example, the bill requires that only 35 percent of snacks sold at school be of the more healthful variety beginning this year, going up to 50 percent in 2007. When given such a choice, which side of the vending machine will students be more likely to spend their money on?

A better bill would outright prohibit the sale of unhealthy junk food during school hours from vending machines and from the cafeteria. But such a bill would be unlikely to pass since it would be opposed by the snack food companies.

The Indiana Vending Council and Hoosier Beverage Association both support the bill in its current form. That should send up a red flag that maybe the bill doesn’t go nearly far enough.

Still, it’s better than nothing. And it does present kids with better options than they might otherwise have.

But even the so-called healthier snack foods may not be all that healthy. The guidelines provide that the healthier options must not provide more than 30 percent of their calories from fat, or 10 percent from saturated or trans fat. There is a 210-calorie limit as well as a 20-ounce limit for beverages, which do include the sugar-laden sports beverages.

In addition, to qualify, a snack cannot contain more sugar than 35 percent of its total weight. That still could add up to more sugar than what should be considered “healthy.” Caffeinated beverages and sugar-sweetened soft drinks are also not on the healthier snacks list.

Realizing that snack foods by themselves have not made our children obese, but that lack of exercise has also played a role, state legislators also added a physical activity clause to the bill. It doesn’t actually mandate any kind of activity, but it does require schools to provide time for it.

The bill still needs to be passed by the full House and then be signed into law by the governor. But since every group that might have opposed it seems to support it, most lawmakers see no problem for the bill in the House. And a governor’s office spokesperson said the governor agrees with the bill in its current form.

So, unless something unexpected happens, school kids will have some healthier snack choices come September. We can hope they choose to take advantage of them.

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