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New School Food Bill Is Anything but Junk

The Senate just passed the Child Nutrition Act. This could be a turning point in the battle for healthy school meals, but will the industry back away quietly?

On Thursday, August 5th, the Senate unanimously passed the Child Nutrition Act, the federal legislation that stipulates the policy and funding for school meals. New policies include additional meal training and strengthened nutrition and fitness standards. To fund all of this, the bill allocates $4.5 billion, including an additional 6 cents per meal—the first non-inflationary revenue increase since 1973.

This school meal makeover also reduces student exposure to junk food. Now all edibles available in school will have to meet government guidelines, whether they be on the lunch line or in a vending machine. The 2010 Child Nutrition Act stipulates: “the Secretary shall establish science-based nutrition standards for...all foods sold outside the school meal any time during the extended school day."

This means that many of the salty, fatty, prepackaged snacks that taunt our nation's school children may need to find a new market. But will the food industry simply walk away from such a valuable demographic?

Kids are big business. As Beverage Industry magazine once noted, "Influencing elementary school students is very important to soft-drink marketers because children are still establishing their tastes and habits... Entering the schools makes perfect sense." To ensure a lifetime of brand loyalty, food marketing goes beyond the lunchroom, extending into giveaways, hallway and bus ads, and slightly-slanted educational materials (tax-deductible, of course).

The industry is so entrenched in our education system that schools across the nation now rely on junk food revenue to meet their bottom lines. As author Eric Schlosser said of one industry contract negotiator in his book, Fast Food Nation:

"In his three years following his groundbreaking contract for School District 11 in Colorado Springs, Dan DeRose negotiated agreements for seventeen universities and sixty public systems across the United States, everywhere from Greensville, North Carolina to Newark, New Jersey."

New York City has gone so far as to eliminate the competition, banning home cooked snacks from school fundraisers in favor of prepackaged products. Though the DOE claims that the baked goods ban is meant to create a healthier school environment, preexisting contracts with vendors (to the tune of $28 million over five years) may be partly to blame.

Thankfully, the Senate has set policy in motion that might break the cycle. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act sets aside $1 million for research into "the extent and types of marketing of foods and beverages in elementary and secondary schools." This includes:
brand and product logos, names, or information on educational materials, book covers, school supplies, posters, vending machine exteriors, scoreboards, displays, signs equipment, buses, buildings and other school property; educational and other incentive programs; label redemption programs; in-school television, radio and print publications; free samples and coupons; branded fundraising activities; taste-testing and other market research activities.

Given this vast array of advertising methods, $1 million will have to go a long way if we plan to eliminate junk foods and related marketing from our nation's schools. In the meantime, the industry is at work tweaking package sizes and calorie counts, hoping to find a niche in the new system.

Companies like PepsiCo are ahead of the game. The industry giant recently announced that it will voluntarily remove its full sugar beverages from schools worldwide.

But without a clear and calculated push to remove junk food and related marketing from America's schools, the industry will simply develop new formulas and packaging that allow their products to squeeze into the government's guidelines. Children will still have constant access to heavily processed snacks with little nutritional value, only now they will be told that these items are a sound choice.

The Childhood Nutrition Act awaits a vote from the House, and we can only hope that reauthorization there goes as smoothly as it did in the Senate. Until then, we must commit wholeheartedly to changing both the philosophy and funding behind school food, so the next generation has the foundation they need to understand proper nutrition and healthy habits.

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Tami O’Neill is the assistant editor for The Monday Campaigns, a nonprofit public health initiative. She currently lives, works, and blogs in New York City.

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