Bipartisan Support on Capitol Hill for Healthier School Foods

Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act Introduced


The school foods reform movement, which has been sweeping through states and local school districts, has reached the nation’s capital. Bipartisan legislation aimed at improving the nutritional quality of foods available in schools was introduced today in both houses of Congress. The bill calls on the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to update its decades-old nutrition standards for drinks and snack foods sold in cafeterias alongside the regular school meals and to apply those standards everywhere on school grounds, including in vending machines and school stores.

In 1979, USDA defined what it calls “foods of minimal nutritional value,” and restricted sale of those foods in the cafeteria during mealtimes. Since then, however, current nutrition science has rendered those standards obsolete, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). And since so much food is sold outside the cafeteria throughout the school day, the bill’s sponsors say updated standards should apply to the whole campus.

“When parents send their kids to school with lunch money, they shouldn’t have to worry that the money will be spent on foods that promote obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay,” said CSPI nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan. “Disco-era nutrition standards don’t make sense in 2006. When you have an obesity epidemic, schools shouldn’t sell candy at recess, potato chips for lunch, and soda throughout the day.”

USDA’s current definition of foods of minimal nutritional value focuses on whether a food has at least minimal amounts of one of eight nutrients. However, that definition doesn’t address calories, saturated or trans fat, salt, or added sugars. By the current standard, seltzer water—something that CSPI says should be allowed in schools—is disallowed, while candy bars, cookies, and potato chips can be sold anywhere on campus at all hours of the day.

Back in the 1970s, most food sold on school grounds was sold in the cafeteria, and thus subject to USDA’s standards. Since then, vending machines have become commonplace. According to a report issued last year by the Government Accountability Office, 83 percent of elementary schools, 97 percent of middle schools, and 99 percent of high schools sell foods out of vending machines and school stores, as well as in a la carte lines in the cafeteria. A 2004 survey by CSPI of 251 schools found that 75 percent of the drinks and 85 percent of the snacks sold in school vending machines were of poor nutritional quality.

“Many kids are at school for two meals a day. But instead of a nutritious school breakfast and lunch in the cafeteria, they are enticed to eat Cheetos and a Snickers Bar from the vending machines in the hallway," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), lead sponsor of the measure. "Junk food sales in schools are out of control. It undercuts our investment in school meal programs, and steers kids toward a future of obesity and diet-related disease. Congress cannot stand idly by while our kids are preyed upon by junk-food marketers.”

In addition to Senator Harkin, sponsors of the Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act include Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA), and Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-RI). House sponsors include Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), Rep. Christopher Shays (R-CT), and Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-CT).

“Parents throughout the country know all too well the poor nutritional temptations facing our children each day at school,” Murkowski said. “At a time when childhood obesity rates continue to climb at an alarming rate, it is imperative that we take decisive action to curb this trend by helping our children develop healthy eating habits today that will impact them throughout their lives. This legislation takes an important step forward by removing the unhealthy foods that are currently being offered in our schools.”

“Nutrition for children is fundamental,” Specter said. “This would update the definition of food nutritional value and give the Secretary of Agriculture more authority over foods sold in schools. Pittsburgh and Philadelphia schools have taken steps in a similar direction and I think this would be a good national policy.”

Supporters of the bill argue that it is largely a myth that improving school foods reduces school revenue. Much of the money spent on junk food in vending machines or a la carte lines would otherwise be spent either on healthier snacks or on the federally reimbursable school meal. Also, schools’ soft-drink vending contracts typically raise only about $10 to $20 per student per year. In a survey of 17 schools and school districts conducted by USDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 12 schools and districts increased their revenues after switching to healthier options, and four reported no change.

“Revenue from junk-food sales isn’t a philanthropic donation by soda and snack food companies,” Wootan said. “The money comes out of children’s pockets, and Coke and Pepsi take a cut of that money back to corporate headquarters. Schools, are, in effect, taxing kids to help fund schools.”

The legislation is supported by CSPI, the National PTA, the School Nutrition Association, and more than 80 other organizations.

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Contact Jeff Cronin (jcronin[at] or Ariana Stone (astone[at]