New bill proposes revamp of school nutrition standards

By Lorraine Heller

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Nutrition

A bill introduced in Congress yesterday proposes a radical overhaul
of the nutritional standards for foods sold in schools, a move
likely to change the face of the type of products available to
children throughout the school day.

The new legislation, introduced by a group of senators and representatives, calls on the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to update its nutritional standards for foods sold on campus.

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.

The new bill- the Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act of 2006- 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.

"Nutrition science has evolved and expanded,"​ states the bill, adding that the current definition of school nutritional standards is "inconsistent with current knowledge about nutrition and health."

"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,"​ said Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director of consumer watchdog Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which supports the legislation.

Lead sponsor of the new measure is Senator Tom Harkin, a long time advocate of, and campaigner for, healthy school food standards.

Other sponsors of the act include Senator Lisa Murkowski, Senator Arlen Specter and Senator Lincoln Chaffee. House sponsors include Representative Lynn Woolsey, Representative Christopher Shays and Representative Nancy Johnson.

"Selling junk food in schools undercuts our investment in school meal programs, and steers kids toward a future of obesity and diet-related disease. Congress can't stand idly by while our kids are preyed upon by junk-food marketers,"​ said Senator Tom Harkin.

The new act must now be voted on by Congress before it is passed to the President and sets a rule-making process into motion.

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 will then throw open its proposal for public comment. It is at this stage that proposed bills are often held up.

Indeed, this is not the first time that Senator Tom Harkin has introduced this kind of legislation. Similar versions of the bill that he introduced in the past were defeated "on party line votes,"​ according to CSPI spokesperson Jeff Cronin.

"What makes this bill different is that it now has significant support from Republicans in both houses of Congress,"​ he said, adding that it is "certain that momentum is on our side."

The legislation is supported by over 80 organizations, including the School Nutrition Association, the National PTA and the American Heart Association.

Its primary concern is to address growing childhood obesity rates, as well as increased incidence of related diseases in children, such as type 2 diabetes.

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