Kentucky Tops List with A-

In the past year California, Connecticut, and New Jersey all made headlines for bumping soda out of schools and for otherwise improving the foods available to kids during the school day. But according to a year-end School Foods Report Card issued today by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the state of Kentucky has the strongest school nutrition policy in the land.

For the 50 states and the District of Columbia, CSPI evaluated the policies for foods and beverages that are sold in schools through vending machines, school stores, fundraisers, and a la carte foods-foods sold in the cafeteria alongside the federally subsidized school lunch program. CSPI looked at nutrition standards for foods and drinks, and the grade levels, hours, and locations on campus to which the states' policies apply.

Kentucky's school food policies were given an A-. The state only allows vending machines and school stores to sell food on campus in the afternoon, a half-hour after the last lunch period, and has strong nutrition standards for foods and drinks sold during the rest of the school day in all schools. Permitted drinks include 1 percent or fat-free milk, waters, 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice, or other drinks with less than 10 grams of sugars per serving. For foods, Kentucky set reasonable standards for portion sizes, saturated fat, sugars, and sodium. The state got an A- rather than an A because of its weak beverage portion size standards, lack of limits on trans fat, and a loophole for a la carte foods (it allows any item that is a part of a reimbursable meal to be sold through a la carte).

Nevada, Arkansas, New Mexico, Alabama, and California all received B+s. Seven states received Bs or B-s; 15 states received Cs or Ds (the District of Columbia received a C), and 23 states received Fs.

Only ten states have school nutrition standards that apply to the whole campus and the whole school day at all grade levels. Nine states limit the saturated-fat content of school snacks, and only seven address trans fat, which, gram-for-gram, is even worse for children's hearts and health. Just five states set limits on sodium. Nineteen states limit added sugars.

"Although some local school districts have school foods policies that are far better than the state standards, far too many states allow way too much junk food in schools," said CSPI nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan. "With junk food tempting kids at nearly every other public place in America, schools should be one place where parents don't have to worry about what their kids are eating. States should continue to enact stronger nutrition policies, but since the school lunch program is, after all, a federal program, Congress should take action to ensure that all school foods are healthy."

Currently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has a standard for what it calls Foods of Minimal Nutritional Value, and restricts the sale of those foods in the cafeteria during mealtimes. That 30-year-old standard focuses on whether the food has sufficient levels of various nutrients, and not on whether the food has excessive calories, added sugars, sodium, or saturated and trans fat. Bipartisan legislation (S. 2592 and H.R. 5167) introduced earlier this year would require USDA to bring its nutrition standards for foods sold out of vending machines, school stores, and a la carte in line with current nutrition science, and to apply those standards to all foods sold on campus throughout the school day. Seltzer water--something that should be allowed in schools, for instance, is disallowed under the current standard-but Twinkies and potato chips are allowed.

Sugary soda--the largest single source of teens' calories--is likely to be less common in schools in coming years, thanks in part to a voluntary agreement the soda industry made with former President Clinton, Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, and the American Heart Association. That announcement, which headed off a lawsuit planned by CSPI and various lawyers, is voluntary and might be hard to enforce, and CSPI says it should not forestall local, state, or federal action to ensure that soda and other sugary drinks, including Gatorade-style "sports" drinks, are removed from schools.

CSPI recommends that the only beverages sold in schools be waters, seltzer, low-fat or fat-free milk, and unsweetened juice drinks with at least 50 percent fruit juice, and that beverage portion sizes (other than for water) be limited to 12 ounces. For snacks, CSPI recommends reasonable limits for saturated and trans fat, sodium, and added sugars. School food policies should apply to all grade levels, the whole school day, and everywhere on campus, according to the group.

"There is no need to balance school budgets at the expense of our children's health," said Wootan. "School beverage contracts typically raise less than $10 a year and many schools have found that they can raise just as much money selling healthy foods." -30-