School junk-food laws need to be enforced

The Ventura County Star
By Gary Ruskin
Issue: 5/1/05

In 2001, U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher issued a major report on childhood obesity, in which he called on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to enforce existing rules prohibiting the sale of soda pop and some candies in school cafeterias during mealtimes. There was, Satcher said, no time to lose. But, three years later, despite the worsening epidemic of childhood obesity, the USDA has still failed to heed the surgeon general's call.

The USDA's "competitive foods rule" prohibits the sale of "foods of minimal nutritional value" (soda pop, chewing gum and certain types of candies, such as hard candies, jellied candies, licorice and marshmallows) during mealtimes in school cafeterias. But the enforcement provisions for the competitive foods rule are extremely lax, so some schools may not take them seriously.

The competitive foods rule is a crucial element in the battle against the childhood obesity epidemic. In a common-sense way, it encourages children to eat nutritious foods and not those that provide little other than calories. The Bush administration should enforce it vigorously, to reduce the incidence of childhood obesity.

Junk food is sold in the schools because the manufacturers of these products want a captive market of impressionable schoolchildren in which to sell it. "The school system is where you build brand loyalty," said John Alm, CEO of Coca-Cola Enterprises.

Recently, Commercial Alert, a nonprofit organization that protects children and communities from commercialism, filed a petition for rule-making with the USDA, requesting that it strengthen the enforcement of federal rules prohibiting the sale of soda pop and some types of candies in school cafeterias across the country. We're asking the USDA to side with parents who want their kids to grow up healthy, not with junk-food companies that want to stuff children with sugar and caffeine.

Last month, the USDA admitted in a report that it does not know whether schools are complying with prohibitions against the sale of foods of minimal nutritional value during school mealtimes. The report stated, "It is unclear to what extent federal and state regulations (against the sale of foods of minimum nutritional value) are enforced at the local level."

The majority of Americans want the schools to cut back on the marketing of junk food. According to a February Wall Street Journal poll, 83 percent of American adults "believe public schools need to do a better job of limiting children's access to unhealthy foods like snack foods, sugary soft drinks and fast food." The childhood obesity epidemic is a problem that can be solved, but only if we have the political will to put the health of our children ahead of the profits of the junk-food industry.

— Gary Ruskin is executive director of Commercial Alert in Portland, Ore. Its Web site is www.commercialalert.org.

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