Return of the food fights

In school districts in the Sacramento region and across the nation, it’s Pepsi, Doritos and Nerds vs. juice, Go-Gurt and Nutri-Grain bars.

Yes, students and their food choices continue to take center stage in a junk-food battle that pits the Big Food industry against the public-health advocates who claim that schools have a key role to play in helping to fight an alarming 15-percent childhood-obesity rate in America.

It doesn’t take a nutritionist to know what’s better for kids. But that hasn’t stopped cash-strapped schools from serving up loads of profitable but unhealthy snacks and sodas on campus, especially in vending machines.

A survey last month by the Center for Science in the Public Interest revealed—big surprise!—that vending machines in U.S. public schools are providing mostly high-fat snacks and sugary drinks to students. The study found that three-quarters of the drinks sold in machines were soda or “fake” juice drinks. Among snack foods, almost half the machines were filled with candy, another 25 percent with chips, and about 13 percent with sugary baked goods.

Critics say public schools should not be the end-all-be-all when it comes to solving childhood obesity, and they certainly are correct. The increase in childhood obesity comes from an array of complex factors that influence what kids eat and how often they exercise. But schools are there to teach, right? One great way is by example.

California legislators know this and already have passed legislation that does not allow the sale of sodas in elementary and middle schools. Now Senate Bill 1566 by Senator Martha Escutia, D-Los Angeles, seeks to take things even further by increasing the limits on the percentages of fats and sugars in foods available on campuses.

At the local level, some state school districts—including those in Los Angeles, Oakland and San Francisco—have decided already to ban soda sales in their high schools. But the Sacramento City Unified School District has not yet joined this juice brigade. It’s true that the district turned down a controversial $2 million PepsiCo contract in 1999. But that didn’t stop most of the high schools in the district from making individual arrangements with either PepsiCo or Coca-Cola anyway.

The district also created a Child Nutrition and Physical Activity Advisory Committee, and that committee finally is getting ready to recommend a food and beverage policy to the school board. But early signs suggest that the policy won’t go far enough, that unhealthy foods and soda will continue to be allowed at schools, albeit at a lower rate.

Memo to the school board: Why wait until the state forces you to make the inevitable change to healthier foods on campus? Show some leadership and remove the soda altogether. The action will reduce student obesity and, incidentally, do exactly what schools are supposed to do—teach students lessons and habits that may last a lifetime.