Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Hearing on junk food in Massachusetts schools

At the press event before today's hearing about junk food in Massachusetts schools at the State Capitol in Boston, State Rep. Peter Koutoujian challenged the notion that policy-makers should allow children to choose junk food. "Who's in charge here?," Koutoujian asked. "The adults or the children?"

Similarly, 15-year-old Raquel Pena spoke eloquently about the difficulty of pursuing a healthy lifestyle in today's school food marketing environment: "If we had less junk food, I would go for the cafeteria food. If we had healthier options, I would feel more supported."

Koutoujian, the lead sponsor of bill H. 1457, which would exclude sodas and set nutritional standards for foods in vending machines and a la carte lines, took some hard questions from reporters. One asked why his bill didn't do something about the food served in through the National School Lunch Program in the same schools. His answer was jurisdictional, that his bill could not address the federal lunch program. I think a more vigorous answer would be to say that Koutoujian's bill strongly supports good nutrition through the National School Lunch Program.

Removing junk food from vending machines and a la carte lines greatly strengthens both the financial position and the marketing position of the National School Lunch Program. For one thing, the federal program is not allowed to sell sodas, so the federal program will be able to compete more strongly under the new bill. Second, the food service authorities would be able to serve healthier food in the NSLP if it were better protected from unhealthy competition in the a la carte line. Having more paying customers for the full lunch in the NSLP improves the finances of the school lunch program, and permits it to undertake other healthy food offerings that might be more expensive. It sounded weak for the bill's sponsors to talk about Federal and state jurisdiction, as if the school lunch program were bad but they were helpless to fix it. The NSLP is far better than the vending machines and a la carte lines, and furthermore, the Massachusetts bill improves the economic feasibility of further nutritional improvement in the nation's biggest child nutrition program.

We do not allow tobacco sales in high school vending machines, despite the fact that they might bring needed revenue to schools and teenagers of legal age might enjoy them. The point, paradoxically, is that more choice makes our children less healthy and less happy.

Ask Raquel Pena.

Update 10/6/2005: A student sends this BBC report, about a study in Britain that was mentioned in the press conference, arguing that students who eat school cafeteria lunches are as healthy as students who bring lunches from home.

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