In October 2006, a bipartisan group of Illinois legislators approved rules banning “junk food” sales in elementary and middle schools. Critics say the measure is overly simplistic and was fast-tracked to gain public favor in the weeks before the November election.
The Joint Committee on Administrative Rules (JCAR), a bipartisan legislative committee, voted 8-4 to approve the ban, which prohibits selling certain types of foods, such as chips, candy, and soda, from on-campus vending machines before and during school hours.
Under the National School Lunch Program, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) has the authority to prohibit the sale of certain types of food on school grounds during class hours. Last March, JCAR put a moratorium on the ISBE’s proposed “junk-food ban” because legislators had established a task force to examine the issue and didn’t want the ISBE pre-empting their work. JCAR lifted the moratorium in October.
Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) and state education officials applauded the ban, citing it as an important step in the fight against childhood obesity. The School Wellness Policy Task Force, a group of educators and health experts, is expected in January to give the legislature more detailed recommendations about what to ban.
State Sen. Steve Rauschenberger (R-Elgin), who voted against the ban, criticized state officials for imposing a “one-size-fits-all” regulation on local school districts.
“We ought to be looking at the effectiveness of physical education and health education programs if we’re serious about fighting childhood obesity,” Rauschenberger said. “Banning Coca-Cola and Mountain Dew is not a real solution to childhood obesity.”
He also questioned state officials’ decision to support the ban, because the School Wellness Policy Task Force had already been working to create recommendations for comprehensive nutritional standards to be used in public schools statewide.
“For the administration to rush in where angels fear to tread, for political gain, is not only bad policy, it’s bad politics,” Rauschenberger said.
The senator also expressed concern about how the ban will affect schools’ contracts with vendors. Although the regulations were to be enacted for the 2006-07 year, they allow schools to apply for a one-year waiver.
“These contractual programs pay for gym floors and sports uniforms and a lot of other things for schools,” Rauschenberger said.
The guidelines ban food items with more than 200 calories and food items in which calories from fat exceed 35 percent of total calories. Nuts, seeds, cheese, fruits, non-fried vegetables, and low-fat yogurt products are permissible.
The guidelines do not regulate the nutritional value of foods sold to students from schools’ cafeteria-based food services.
Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, president and founder of the American Council on Science and Health, a consumer-education group based in New York, said the guidelines are an attempt to correct a complicated problem with an overly simplistic solution.
“There are many, many social trends that contribute to problems like childhood obesity,” Whelan explained, noting today’s children spend more time in front of computers and less time outside playing than previous generations did. People seem to be eating all the time, she noted, even as they drive or walk down the street, and few adults or children understand their caloric needs.
“I think we’re getting into dangerous territory by dichotomizing food,” Whelan said. “It’s confusing children to say that these are bad foods. Our kids need to learn to use them in moderation.”
Whelan pointed out that many nutritious foods fall into the “forbidden” category, such as avocados, which are high in fat, and fruits and fruit juices, which have high sugar content.
Further complicating attempts to categorize foods as “junk foods” or “healthy foods,” many soda manufacturers are able and willing to fortify their drinks with nutrients, Whelan said. She noted Diet 7-Up Plus is fortified with calcium.
“What does [the ban] accomplish?” Whelan asked. “What they’re really banning is politically incorrect foods and drinks. They’re easy targets.”
Andy Wade, spokesman for the ISBE, which oversees the ban, said it is only part of a school health policy. But Greg Blankenship, director of the Illinois Policy Institute, called the ban “another example of the nanny state.
“[Food bans] are demeaning to the body politic and to individuals,” Blankenship said. “They suggest that you can’t make decisions for yourself, so the government will make them for you.”
Hilary Masell Oswald ([email protected]) is a freelance writer living in Evanston, Illinois.
For more information …
Illinois State Board of Education Nutrition Programs, http://www.isbe.net/nutrition/htmls/rules.htm