Thursday, September 08, 2005

Children's nutrition and competitive foods in schools

The Government Accountability Office last month completed an eloquent study (.pdf) of the economics of junk food and other "competitive foods" sold by schools.

First, some definitions. USDA generally provides almost no regulation of "competitive foods," which are foods and drinks sold a la carte in cafeterias or in vending machines outside of the parameters of the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program. The one slight exception is that USDA does provide some exceedingly mild regulation of "foods of minimal nutritional value," such as candy and sugary sodas, which may not be sold inside cafeterias during the actual school lunch period. As we noted earlier, the department refuses even to enforce that mild rule. Some unregulated competitive foods may be comparatively healthy, but others are not. If I understand correctly, many junk foods, such as potato chips or ice cream, are not regulated as foods of minimal nutritional value.

In some sense, the GAO study paints a bleak picture of school food authorities that are addicted to the revenue from competitive foods and a U.S. Department of Agriculture unwilling even to use the full extent of the minimal powers it has to provide some help. The revenue involved is massive, exceeding $125,000 per school in the highest-revenue high schools (30 percent of all high schools).

Ultimately, however, the report is constructive rather than depressing. First, I was relieved to see that most of the revenue from competitive foods other than soda pouring rights contracts goes to School Food Authorities (the district-level folks who manage federal school meals programs). This improves the options for new policies that restrict unhealthy competitive foods while using federal food program reimbursements to ensure that School Food Authorities are not grievously harmed by the change. The pouring rights contracts, by contrast, often benefit the school administration more directly, so it is harder to strike a grand bargain using the revenue from school meals programs as the lever to hold the school adminstration harmless from better nutrition policies. However, the soda pouring rights contracts are so blatantly awful, that I think it is possible for policy change (especially State level policy change) to make them illegal without as much political need to find new funding to compensate. All reasonable people recognize that schools, acting in loco parentis, never should have been making such backroom deals with soda companies in the first place.

Second, the GAO study provides a wonderfully clear analysis of the surmountable barriers to improving the nutrition situation in schools, and it includes a great detailed desciption of how people in specific school districts made improvements. It cites this report this year from the Centers for Disease Control and other agencies, which I had not seen previously, describing what can be done constructively. Here is the GAO's conclusion.

Our nation’s schools are uniquely positioned to positively influence the eating habits of children, yet almost all schools sell readily available foods that are largely unregulated by the federal government in terms of nutritional content. While not all of these competitive foods are unhealthy, many are. Although schools cannot be expected to solve the current problems with child nutrition and growing obesity alone, many states and districts have begun efforts to improve the nutritional environments in their schools.

As districts across the country develop their required wellness policies by school year 2006-2007, they will likely face decisions and challenges similar to those of the districts we studied and may benefit from their lessons learned. Although each district took a different approach, all of them recognized the value of including those parties affected by the changes, such as parents, teachers, and other community members, when developing new policies. In addition, they recognized that students are the ultimate consumers of competitive foods and took steps to consider
their opinions.

[Update later that evening: the Associated Press' excellent food and agriculture reporter Libby Quaid has this article on the report.]

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