Two-thirds of States Get Poor Grades on School Food Report Card

Lack of Progress Indicates Need for Strong Federal Action, Says CSPI (Updated 2/7/08)


WASHINGTON— Kentucky and Oregon top the nation in healthy school foods policies, but two-thirds of states have no or weak nutrition standards to limit junk-food and soda sales out of vending machines, school stores, and other venues outside of school meals, according to a school foods report card from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

“Over the last ten years, states have been strengthening their school nutrition policies,” said Margo G. Wootan, director of nutrition policy at CSPI. “But overall, the changes, while positive, are fragmented, incremental, and not happening quickly enough to reach all children in a timely way.”

No states received an A grade, though two states (Kentucky and Oregon) received an A-; seven states received a B+ (Mississippi, Nevada, Alabama, Arkansas, California, Washington and New Mexico); nine states earned a B or B-; five states and the District of Columbia received Cs; seven states got Ds; and 20 states got Fs.

Most improved honors go to Oregon, which upgraded from an F in last year’s report card to an A-, and Washington state, which moved from an F to a B+. Since CSPI’s last report card in 2006, Oregon passed a comprehensive school snack and beverage policy which limits calories, saturated and trans fat, and sugars in snacks in K-12 schools and limits the sale of most sugary beverages in schools. Both states previously had no guidelines beyond USDA’s bare-bones rules.

“You would think that with all the concern about childhood obesity that getting junk food and soda out of schools would be easy. But, it took us six years of hard work to pass our school nutrition legislation,” said Mary Lou Hennrich, executive director of the Community Health Partnership: Oregon's Public Health Institute, who led Oregon’s effort to improve school foods. “We welcome national action to build on what we and other states have done and ensure that all children go to school in junk-food-free environments.”

CSPI found that only 12 states have comprehensive food and beverage standards that apply to the whole campus, the whole school day, for all grade levels. Fourteen states limit portion sizes for snacks, and only 12 states limit portion sizes for beverages. Sixteen states limit the saturated-fat content of school snacks, and only eleven address trans fat. Just five states set limits on sodium in school foods.

“The majority of states still rely on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s outdated school nutrition standards,” said Wootan. “Those national standards limit only the sale of jelly beans, lollipops, and other so-called ‘foods of minimal nutritional value.’ Those standards don’t address calories, saturated and trans fat, sodium, or other key nutrition concerns for children today.”

CSPI based its grades on five key considerations:

• Beverage nutrition standards

• Food nutrition standards

• Grade levels to which policies apply

• Time during the school day to which policies apply

• Locations on campus to which policies apply

Over the last 20 years, obesity rates have tripled in children and adolescents, and only 2 percent of children eat a healthy diet, according to key nutrition recommendations by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Despite that, about a third of elementary schools, 71 percent of middle schools, and 89 percent of high schools sell items such as sugary drinks, snack cakes, candy, and chips out of vending machines, school stores, or a la carte lines in the cafeteria, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2006 School Health Policies and Programs Study.

Senators Tom Harkin (D-IA), chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, which has jurisdiction over school foods, and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) have legislation that would require USDA to update its standards for foods sold through vending machines, a la carte in the cafeteria, school stores, and elsewhere on the whole campus for the whole school day. Senators Harkin and Murkowski plan to offer their school nutrition bill as an amendment to the Farm bill.

Notably, the soft drink industry and many major food manufacturers are supporting, not opposing, the Harkin-Murkowski amendment. The amendment also is supported by 100 organizations, including the American Medical Association, American Public Health Association, American Dental Association, National PTA, American Association of School Administrators, and the American Federation of Teachers.

The Harkin-Murkowski amendment would exclude sugary drinks from all schools at all times, but would allow low- or no-calorie drinks in high schools. So-called sports drinks such as Gatorade would be confined to athletic areas in high schools. The amendment also would set limits for calories, sodium, saturated fat and trans fat in school snacks.

“After years of fighting us, the food and beverage industry are now working with us on strong national standards for school foods and beverages,” Wootan said. “We hope that Congress will listen to parents, health organizations, and the food and beverage industry and strengthen the national nutrition standards for school foods this year. Given the rising rates of childhood obesity, Congress can’t afford to wait any longer.”

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