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Senate Committee Discusses Nutrition in Schools

On March 31, the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee held a hearing, “Beyond Federal School Meal Programs: Reforming Nutrition for Kids in School.”

Byron V. Garrett, president of the National Parent Teacher Association (PTA), noted the problem of childhood obesity: “The National School Lunch Program was originally established to support military conscription during the aftermath of the Great Depression, when many young Americans were being turned down for service due to their being underweight. Just this month, Dr. Curtis Gilroy, the Pentagon’s Director for Accessions Policy, testified before the House Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee that many recruitment-age youth are too overweight to qualify for military service. Furthermore, recent analysis has shown that for individuals born in the year 2000, the risk of being diagnosed with Type-2 diabetes at some point in their lifetime is estimated at 33 percent for boys and 39 percent for girls. The problem has grown to the point that a 2003 study funded and supported by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that overweight and obesity account for approximately nine percent of total U.S. medical spending.”

While Mr. Garrett commended the federal school breakfast and lunch programs, which are required to meet annual nutrition guidelines set by the United States Department of Agriculture, he expressed misgiving about other food sold in schools, sometimes called a la carte foods. “The only nutritional criteria for school foods sold outside of meals are that ‘foods of minimal nutritional value’ (FMNV) may not be sold in the food service area during meal times. FMNV are foods that provide less than five percent of the Reference Daily Intake for eight specified nutrients per serving…This outdated practice no longer stands up to the scrutiny of contemporary science, dietary patterns, or health standards. The best interests of our children demand that the nutrition standards be modernized.” Mr. Garrett shared the recommendations of the PTA, including eliminating low nutrition foods from school stores and vending machines; adding water, low-fat milk, and other healthy foods to vending machines; increasing reimbursement for school lunch and breakfast programs; and regulating food marketing in schools.

Reginald M. Felton, director of federal relations for the National School Boards Association, disagreed with Mr. Garrett: “The issue is not whether child nutrition is important. Rather, it is whether child nutrition would be significantly improved by additional federally mandated nutrition standards on all foods and beverages. To this question, the answer, in our view, is ‘no.’” Mr. Felton said that such regulations would lead to more students purchasing food off school grounds and “increased regulatory disagreements” over which items should be banned from schools.

Mr. Felton also noted that banning or restricting certain foods from schools could have fiscal implications: “As you are aware, the primary responsibility of local school boards is to deliver high-quality educational programs to ensure that students are career- and college-ready to compete in the global society. The reality is that many school districts promote the sale of foods and beverages as a means of supplementing the cost of athletic and other extra-curricular activities — which would further redirect the ability of school districts to fund these activities. The expansion of such restrictions on all foods and beverages could substantially reduce revenues to local schools…School districts are caught in a bind between demands to deliver a higher quality education program and an economic crisis that has severely limited state and local capacity to fund them — even with the economic stimulus package.” Mr. Felton recommended that school boards engage their local communities “to create policies and local requirements that have the full support of the people in their local communities,” such as those mandated by the Child Nutrition and Women, Infant, and Children Reauthorization Act of 2004 (P.L. 108-265, see Section 204 on local wellness policies).

Also testifying were Nancy Huehnergarth, director of New York’s Healthy Eating and Physical Activity Alliance; Miriam Erickson Brown, on behalf of the International Dairy Foods Association and the National Milk Products Association; Karen Ehrens, public policy chair of the North Dakota Dietetic Association; Hank Izzo, vice president of research and development at Mars Snackfood; and Susan Neely, CEO of the American Beverage Association.

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