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Study Shows Junk Food Rampant in Schools

Majority of School Vending Machine Space Dedicated to Fatty, Sugary Foods
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WebMD Health News

May 11, 2004 -- Vending machines in U.S. public schools are providing mostly junk food to students and may be undercutting federal efforts to improve the nutritional quality of school meals, according to a study released Tuesday.

The report says vending machines are stocked mostly with high-fat snacks and sugary drinks -- foods "of poor nutritional quality." The report says the trend is contributing to a 15% obesity rate among U.S. children and adolescents.

Researchers looked at 1,420 school vending machines in 24 states. In all, 75% of beverages available in the vending machines were high-sugar sodas and imitation fruit juices. Of the snack food choices sold in the vending machines, 80% of the options were candies, chips, or sweet baked goods. Many of these snacks contain unhealthy trans fats.

Only 26 of 9,700 vending machine slots sold fruits and vegetables, says Margo G. Wootan, nutrition policy director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which conducted the study.

"It undermines parents' ability to feed their children well," she says.

The report says soda and low-nutrition snack foods are a key source of excess calories in children's diets and displace more nutritious foods.

Food manufacturers attacked the report through an industry trade group, arguing that restricting access to certain foods will not help students make healthier choices or lose weight.

"What is lacking from the report is educating children about nutrition.  Students need to understand that a balanced diet that includes a variety of foods, coupled with physical activity, are the keys to leading a healthy lifestyle," says Robert Earl, senior director of nutrition policy at the National Food Processors Association.

Federal Intervention?

The report comes as the U.S. Senate debates a bill reauthorizing the federal lunch program that sets nutritional standards at schools throughout the nation. Reforms to the program are widely credited with helping to bring down calories, cholesterol, and fat content in school cafeterias.

But budget crunches have caused many schools to rely on vending machines and exclusive agreements with drink and food manufacturers for extra revenue. Democrats complain that junk food available in the machines, along with a la carte snack bars in schools, undercut the progress schools have made on improving students' nutrition.

"I don't know any parents who would serve their kids Cheetos, a Snickers bar, and a 20-ounce Coke for dinner," though that is what is typically available in school vending machines, says Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the senior Democrat on the Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee.

Harkin and other Democrats want to change federal law to offer incentive payments for schools that conduct more nutrition education for students. His proposal would also give the U.S. Department of Agriculture the power to regulate the content of school vending machines as it already does with school lunches.

But the plan may face a tough sell on Capitol Hill. "I won't be a part of it," Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee Chairman Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss. tells WebMD. "I think it's up to local jurisdictional decisions."

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