April 25, 2007 -- Vending machines and snack bars selling sodas, candy, and high-fat foods like potato chips should be banned from public schools, according to standards recommended Wednesday by the Institute of Medicine (IOM).
The group's report, commissioned by Congress, says schools should adopt common standards limiting food sales to fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy products, and whole-grain snacks. The standards would also limit portion size and the calorie, sodium, added sugar, and fat content of food sold to kids.
Federal standards already regulate the nutrition content of school lunches served from cafeteria kitchens. But the government maintains only very loose rules for food sold at a la carte snack bars as well as snack and beverage machines.
The report's authors said their recommendations were meant to both promote healthy eating and to displace the junk food currently on sale in vending machines and snack bars at many American schools.
"Because foods and beverages available on the school campus make up a substantial proportion of the daily calorie intake, they should contribute to a healthy environment," says Virginia A. Stallings, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania and chairwoman of the panel that wrote the report.
The recommendations would also ban high-sugar sports drinks from elementary and middle schools. Those drinks, along with some snack foods including baked potato chips and pretzels, would be allowed in high schools, but only during limited times after class hours, the report states.
Some states, including California, have passed laws limiting junk food sales in schools. But many others have not. Individual school districts are mandated by law to come up with student body nutrition plans, but the plans range widely in quality and depth, experts say.
The IOM's committee members said a single standard, whether adopted by Congress or by administrative regulation, is required.
"There is such a huge variety in levels of commitment to nutrition standards," says Rosemary Dederichs, a panel member who is also director of the food services department at the University of Minnesota.
Voluntary Pledges by Industry
Major snack food and beverage companies recently launched voluntary pledges to limit junk food sales in public schools. Wednesday's recommendations are slightly more strict in that they urge limits to portion sizes and other factors not included in the industry pledges.
In a statement, Alison Kretser, senior director of nutrition and health policy for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, said the IOM report "shines an important spotlight" on childhood obesity. But the report "ignores the tremendous progress that has been made in recent years in improving the school food environment -- changes that were developed as the result of dialogue and collaboration between the food industry, educators, parents, and health groups," she said.
The recommendations cannot be enforced unless government entities -- most likely Congress -- step in to enact them.
Lawmakers favoring federal nutrition standards for all school food said Wednesday's report would bolster their cause.
"Voluntary guidelines were a good first step," Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, told reporters.
"The health of our children is too important to leave to unenforceable voluntary guidelines," said Harkin, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee. The panel has jurisdiction over school nutrition programs.