Unveils Legislation to Ban Junk Food in Schools

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WASHINGTON ( -- Calling childhood obesity a "public-health crisis of the first order,” U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, unleashed a new attack on fast food today, this time with broader bipartisan support, and directed his ire at school foods.
Photo: AP
U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa

“Our nation’s schools have been inundated with junk foods and sugary drinks,” Mr. Harkin said as he joined other legislators in front of giant posters of vending machines.

They unveiled legislation that holds the potential to ban sales of most soft drinks, chips and candy anywhere in schools during the school day by requiring the U.S. Department of Agriculture to rewrite its 30-year-old definition of “foods of minimal nutritional value” and make a major change in the definition’s impact. Currently, food that falls under that description can’t be sold at lunch, but can be sold on school grounds, including in vending machines. Mr. Harkin’s Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act would curb junk food's sale anywhere on school grounds during the school day.

’Minimal nutritional value’
The Department of Agriculture describes “foods of minimal nutritional value” as being flavored ices, chewing gum, lollipops, licorice and cotton candy, among others. Mr. Harkin said new research makes those definitions outdated, and the legislation calls for an examination of saturated fats, calories, sodium and portion sizes to be used to craft a new definition.

Mr. Harkin has championed food issues before without threatening legislation, but this time he announced a broad group of co-sponsors, including Sens. Arlen Specter, R-Penn., Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., Lincoln Chaffee, R-R.I., and in the House, Reps. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., and Chris Shays, R-Conn.

Ms. Murkowski said it was wrong to teach children about health, then let them walk through the schoolhouse doors to see vending machines.

Mr. Shays said schools need to change.

“What we are doing in the schools to our kids is basically poisoning them,” he said.

Mr. Harkin credited the beverage industry for taking steps, announced last year, to stop the sale of sugared sodas in elementary schools and limit them in middle and high schools, but added those measures still didn’t go far enough.

’Hidden attempt
Kevin Keane, senior VP for the American Beverage Industry, today called the legislation a "hidden attempt” to ban the sale of soft drinks in schools.

“It is unnecessary. Our industry is already providing leadership with a new school beverage policy,” he said. “It limits the regular soft drinks in high schools to 50% of the offerings. What would be the impact on health and well being from this? The answer is zero. If you want to commit to ending childhood obesity, you need to teach kids about eating a balanced diet and to do more physical activity.”

Stephanie Childs, a spokeswoman for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said the group is still reviewing the legislation, but food companies are working with state officials as they put together school wellness policies and develop products to meet the new standards and nutritional needs.

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