The Illinois State Board of Education, following the urging of Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), on December 15 began the process of banning the sale of high-fat, high-calorie foods and drinks to most of the state’s elementary and middle school students.
“Removing junk food and soda from Illinois schools is one more way we can help our children stay healthy,” Blagojevich said in a December 15 news release.
The governor-appointed education board voted 6-2 to invite public comment on a proposal to limit the sale of some foods in elementary and middle schools. The board will likely decide whether or not to implement that proposal at its March meeting. Under the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), the board has authority to issue the new regulations if they are approved.
Blagojevich said in testimony before the education board and in press statements that a better diet leads to better academic performance. He said the proposed ban is one step toward improving both in Illinois.
Dietary Politics Changing
“We know that better nutrition helps children attend school more regularly, behave better when they’re in school, and score better on tests,” Blagojevich said in a December 9 statement issued by the state education board. “We know all this, and yet in schools across our state, junk food is available to any child who has the spare change to buy it from a vending machine.”
The proposed ban will affect only the schools participating in the NSLP which, according to the board, comprises about 86.4 percent of the public schools in Illinois. An additional 642 private schools, residential child-care institutions, and camps also participate in the NSLP.
The current effort to ban some foods and drinks follows an unsuccessful attempt Blagojevich made two years ago to get state lawmakers to ban vending machines in the state’s public schools. Legislatures balked at the idea, citing the need for local control regarding vending machines, and some school districts complained about loss of revenue earned from vending machines.
‘Minimally Nutritious’ Food Defined
State regulations already prohibit sales from vending machines during breakfast and lunch; the proposed ban would eliminate sales of prohibited foods throughout the entire school day. Chicago Public Schools currently bans from vending machines certain foods considered to be unhealthy, such as potato chips and candy bars.
The board’s proposed regulations would prohibit the sale of food based on fat and sugar content and would prohibit the sale of carbonated drinks, some juice drinks, whole milk, and flavored water.
The proposed regulations state only non-fat, 1 percent or 2 percent milk can be sold. Only “full strength fruit and vegetable juices” can be sold, and these must be in containers 8 ounces or smaller for elementary school and 12 ounces or smaller for middle school.
According to the proposed rules, less than 35 percent of a food item’s total calories should come from fat, and 10 percent or less from saturated fat. Total sugar should not exceed 35 percent by weight, and no package of food should contain more than 200 calories. The ban would not apply to food brought to school for lunch or to food sold outside of school for fundraisers or at extracurricular functions such as sporting events.
Doubt Ban’s Merits
While the proposed regulations have been developed in consultation with the American Heart Association, experts note there is no consensus on what junk food actually is.
“There is no such thing as junk food, but there are junk diets,” said Elizabeth Whelan, president of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), a nonprofit, consumer-education consortium based in New York City.
Though Whelan was unfamiliar with the details of Blagojevich’s plan, she said she found the approach to be less than effective.
“What particularly doesn’t make sense is selling only calorie-laden fruit juices and banning diet soda,” Whelan said. “Banning specific foods won’t keep kids from eating other foods, and it’s their total calorie intake that matters, not a few ‘evil’ foods.”
Direction, Guidance Sought
Marilyn Tanner Blasiar, a pediatric dietician at the Washington University School of Medicine and a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association (ADA), agreed there is an increasing prevalence of childhood obesity, but said the proper response to it “will be a community effort [because] it’s going to take everybody, including parents and industry,” to promote a healthy diet among children.
In general, Blasiar said Blagojevich’s plan sounded like a sensible first step toward curbing childhood obesity and promoting a healthy diet–though the ADA, which is based in Chicago, is wary of endorsing the specific legislation.
Blasiar said what’s really needed is a greater educational emphasis on healthy diets–both in the classroom and at home–for children to get the message. “At least the awareness of unhealthy behaviors is good,” she said, but the key to making it work will be “surrounding children with healthy choices” and “giving children direction and guidance in making those choices.”
Blasiar also said large juice drinks, such as those containing more than 6 ounces, should not be encouraged as a choice.
“It’s not that kids should never have these options,” Blasiar said of pre-packaged food in vending machines. But the goal should be to promote “an overall healthy lifestyle.”
Gilbert Ross, M.D., medical and executive director of ACSH, agreed that preventing childhood obesity requires more than removing foods from vending machines.
“The problem [of childhood obesity] must be addressed in a systematic, scientific way, giving attention to the exercise portion of the equation as we do to the food-consumption part,” Ross said. The proposed regulations do not address the need for increased exercise, and Blagojevich has not referred to increased exercise in his comments on food choices in schools.
Michael Coulter ([email protected]) teaches political science at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania.
For more information …
For more information on food, soda, and obesity, visit the American Council on Science and Health’s Web site, http://www.acsh.org.
To review news releases from the Illinois State Board of Education, visit http://www.isbe.state.il.us.
The Heartland Institute has several articles on childhood obesity and school nutrition available through PolicyBot™, its free online research database. To read “Soda Ban Lacks Scientific Fizz,” go to http://www.heartland.org/Article.cfm?artId=15101; for “National Summit, Web Site Support Nutrition Initiatives for Kids,” visit http://www.heartland.org/Article.cfm?artId=17704.