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Mass. Senate bill prohibits sale of junk food in schools

Caitlin Yoshiko Buysse

On the heels of first lady Michelle Obama’s recent launch of a White House anti-obesity campaign, the Massachusetts Senate approved in a unanimous vote last Thursday a bill that will prohibit the sale of junk food in schools.

The bill requires state health officials to set nutritional standards for food and beverages sold in schools — including vending machines — to exclude items high in sugar, salt or fat. Candy bars, chips, fried foods, soda and even some sports drinks will be banned.

 The bill also encourages schools to sell fresh fruits and vegetables, and to increase physical education instruction.

As childhood obesity rises throughout the Commonwealth and throughout the country, legislators have been searching for ways to address the problem. “Obviously, everyone [in the state Senate] is very alarmed about the high level of diabetes and obesity rates,” Senate President Therese Murray told the Globe. “It’s a crisis.”

 Nearly a third of the children in the state are overweight or obese, according to the Massachusetts Health Council — double the number from 20 years ago.

 Overweight and obese children are at risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes and asthma.

 As in adults, obesity in children is determined by body mass index, or BMI, a measure of weight in relation to height. Unlike BMI for adults, the measurement for children is plotted on CDC growth charts and is age- and gender-specific, because the body’s composition changes with age and differs between boys and girls.

 Today, children as young as 2 years old are obese, and 12.4 percent are obese before they reach the first grade.

But last week’s bill was not the first attempt to address childhood obesity by limiting access to junk food.

In 2006, former President Bill Clinton brokered a deal with beverage companies to stop the sale of sugary soft drinks in schools. Partnering with the American Heart Association, the Clinton Foundation encouraged the American Beverage Association to sell unsweetened juices, low-fat milk and water to schools instead.

The companies, including Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, agreed and cut 95 percent of full-sugar soft drink shipments to schools.

In the same year, a study published by the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that soda is the top vending machine purchase for Massachusetts students. The study also showed that the number of a student’s vending machine purchases is directly related to their daily sugar intake.

Today, American children consume at least 30 percent of their daily calories from junk food, with soft drinks alone comprising 10 percent of their daily caloric intake.

Some states, including Illinois and Colorado, have also implemented a soda tax. The tax discourages consumption and generates extra income for statewide health care programs. New York was recently considering charging an 18 percent soda tax, but Gov. David Paterson recently dropped the proposal under pressure from the beverage industry.

Last month, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick proposed a statewide candy and soda tax of 5 percent. This stands below the state’s 6.25 percent sales tax, which does not apply to food items. The new tax would generate $40 million each year for public health programs.

Fourteen other states, plus Washington, D.C., charge a tax on non-nutritional food items.

“Candy, soft drinks and other sweetened beverages add significant non-nutritional calories to the diets of Americans and are directly linked to obesity, especially among children,” the governor stated in a policy brief for the new tax. “Removing the tax exemption for the purchase of sweetened soda and candy is a critical first step in discouraging the consumption of these empty calories.”

 Boston Public Schools have also taken measures to limit students’ access to junk food. In 2006, nutritional guidelines were implemented for food and beverages sold in schools, and similar to last week’s bill, banned soft drinks and snacks high in sugar, salt or fat.

But these wide-ranging efforts are modest compared to the enormous advertising campaigns aimed at children and teenagers to consume junk food. An Institute of Medicine study revealed that $10 billion is spent each year on food and beverage marketing to children — and the vast majority of advertised foods are low in nutritional value.

The study also showed that kids spend over $200 billion annually —with junk food being a top purchase.