A bill designed to set nutritional standards for foods sold in schools was last week re-introduced, after gathering strong support from scientific and education communities.
Proposed by Senator Tom Harkin, the legislation would require the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to update federal regulations governing the sale of snacks and other foods sold on school grounds.
The new bill - the Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act - aims to revise the current definition of 'foods of minimal nutritional value' that are permitted for sale in schools. The current definition, which dates back to 1979 and which focuses on whether a food has at least minimal amounts of one of eight nutrients, has been accused of being obsolete.
The new definition is designed to conform to current nutrition science.
"Increasing scientific evidence shows the risks that poor diet has down the line for children and adolescents. Thirty years is far too long to allow our nutritional guidelines to remain stagnant. We must address this problem and do what is right for the health of our kids," said Harkin this week.
The bill was first introduced in the 109th Congress, and has since gathered the support of organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Diabetes Association, the American Dietetic Association, the American Heart Association, the American Medical Association and the School Nutrition Association.
It was designed to address a loophole in the terms of the current Child Nutrition Act means that the USDA sets standards for foods sold in school lunch rooms, but is prevented from regulating foods sold elsewhere on school grounds, which are not required to meet similar nutritional standards.
"We must bring nutrition guidelines for foods sold outside of the cafeteria in line with those required for food sold inside of the cafeteria," said Harkin on Tuesday.
"School breakfast and lunch programs adhere to strong guidelines, but as soon as students leave the cafeteria, they are inundated with the over-promotion of junk food in vending machines and snack bars. This undercuts our investment in school meal programs and steers kids toward a future of obesity and diet-related disease. We must update nutritional guidelines across the board."
According to Government Accountability Office (GAO), 99 percent of high schools, 97 percent of middle schools, and 83 percent of elementary schools have vending machines, school stores, or snack bars. The most common items sold out of school vending machines, school stores, and snack bars include soda and sports drinks, salty snacks, candy, and high-fat baked goods.
Harkin's proposal, introduced together with Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, would require updated nutritional standards for all foods sold at school, and would apply those standards to all foods sold during the school day everywhere on schools grounds.
Other co-sponsors include Senator Menendez of New Jersey, Senator Voinovich of Ohio, Senator Cantwell of Washington, Senator Lieberman of Connecticut, Senator Durbin of Illinois, Senator Carper of Delaware, and Senator Schumer of New York.
Identical bipartisan legislation is also expected to be introduced in the House of Representatives.
If the bill is passed, new nutritional standards are likely to consider the nutrient and calorie content of foods, as well as amounts of trans fats, saturated fats, sodium and added sugar.
However, the specifics of any new nutrition criteria would be determined by the USDA, which would then throw open its proposal for public comment.