June 20, 2006 -- Kentucky leads the nation in limiting kids' access to junk food and high-calorie drinks at school, according to a report by a watchdog group.
The report gives Kentucky an A- for its rules reining in vending machine and food-counter access at schools while also controlling access to high-fat and high-sugar snacks across school campuses.
Meanwhile, 23 other states received a failing grade from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). The consumer advocacy group has been lobbying Congress to crack down on sales of junk food from machines and à la carte shops operating outside the school lunch programs.
"The sale of junk food and sugary drinks in schools is a national problem that needs a national solution," CSPI says.
On the other side of the issue, Justin Wilson, a research analyst with the Center for Consumer Freedom, called the report an attempt to establish "paternalistic regulation" of schools.
"I think this is something that individual school districts are recognizing they need to take responsibility for," said Wilson. His group is funded by food manufacturers and other companies.
Failing states in the new report have no rules limiting junk food sales outside of cafeterias or at times of day other than the lunch hour, according to the CSPI.
Nearly half of all states limit soft drink sales outside of cafeterias, though many of these policies don't apply to all grade levels or are not in force at all times of day, the report warns. And most states lack policies on foods other than soft drinks.
"The changes occurring at the state level, while positive, are fragmented, incremental, and not happening quickly enough to reach all schools in a timely way," the report says. "The nation has a patchwork of policies," it states.
The federal government regulates the nutritional content of school lunches. But chips, candy, and sodas have become nearly ubiquitous in school vending machines and shops outside of the cafeteria; groups including CSPI have complained that those sources give kids access to an unchecked supply of fat and sugar.
Kentucky's Success Story
Kentucky schools have banned noncafeteria food sales campus-wide until after the lunch period. The state limits the fat and sugar content of drinks sold in elementary schools, and this fall is expected to set strict limits on calorie and fat content of food sold in all schools.
"There's a move here now to really look at health and do preventative kinds of things. We were seeing first hand that schools were selling food that was just not healthy to kids," Lisa York Gross, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education, tells WebMD.
CSPI so far has been unsuccessful in its efforts to get Congress to set nutritional standards for school snack counters and vending machines as a way to help combat childhood obesity.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has spearheaded the effort in the Senate, even though Iowa was one of the states receiving a failing grade in the CSPI report.
National Report Card
Following are CSPI's grades for the nation's school systems:
B+ Nevada, Arkansas, New Mexico, Alabama, California
B New Jersey, Arizona, Tennessee
B- Louisiana, West Virginia, Connecticut, Florida
C+ Hawaii, Texas
C Maine, Mississippi, District of Columbia
C- Colorado, South Carolina
D+ New York, Maryland
D Oklahoma, Virginia, North Carolina
D- Indiana, Illinois, Georgia
F Alaska, Delaware, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin, Wyoming.