California says 'no' to junk-food sales in schools

A statewide ban against certain vending machine snacks in public schools would be the first of its kind.

California is poised to ban sales of soda and fast foods on public school campuses - including high schools - in a move being closely watched by many other states that are weighing whether to do likewise.

In a bill that public health authorities call "the most impressive gains in school nutrition since school lunch was introduced after World War II," the state Assembly and Senate have approved legislation they feel will help reduce childhood obesity by eliminating access to certain drinks and snacks sold in vending machines and school stores.

The legislative action, which has the support of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, has been characterized by supporters as an appropriate regulation to curb an obesity crisis and derided by critics as misguided government intervention.

But it appears the law, the first of its kind nationwide, will easily pass when small differences between Assembly and Senate versions of two separate bills are expected to be ironed out Tuesday.

"Elected officials are supporting parents in protecting their children from the unrestrained marketing and ever-present availability of soda and junk food," says Dr. Harold Goldstein, director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy. "California [schools] can no longer be soda and junk-food superstores."

On the other hand, beveragemakers, as well as some civil libertarians say the moves are well-motivated but interject themselves inappropriately between younger children and their parents. The decision to ban junk food, they feel, should be an individual school's choice.

"While well-intentioned, the [passage] is unfortunate," says the American Beverage Association, the trade association that represents more than 211,000 people who produce US sales of nonalcoholic beverages in excess of $88 billion per year. The soda legislation, it says, "is an ineffective means of addressing obesity, a complex problem with many causes including lack of exercise, consuming excessive calories, lifestyle, genetics, and other factors."

Other critics of the law say that one-size-fits-all solutions could undermine a school's ability to fundraise and support programs needed to combat the epidemic from another angle, such as athletics.

"I don't have a problem with individual schools making this decision but when the state legislature makes the decision for everyone, they could hurt revenue that goes to physical education," says Radley Balko, policy analyst for civil liberties and consumer choice at the Cato Institute.

Initially, that was the case in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), which implemented a local soda ban in 2003 and a junk-food ban last year. Loss of income jeopardized both after-school activities and equipment from volleyball nets to band uniforms. But after early concerns from withdrawn sponsorships and lost revenue, officials now say they are glad they made the switch.

In June, the LAUSD and Pepsico, the makers of Pepsi, signed a new contract for company water products, juices, and sports drinks. As a direct result, the company is donating $2 million back to schools as a signing bonus.

"Now we have the soda industry coming back to us and saying, 'We do have a healthy line of products so let's promote that," says Amy Dresser-Held, director of policy and communication for LAUSD. "They realize that schools are a huge market and if they want to continue to play ball, this is our demand now."

It was the evidence that schools would not be hurt by the ban that helped proponents win over state legislatures.

"Studies have shown that while there were reduction in sales at snack bars and vending machines, kids actually purchased more and better meals at school," says Dr. Goldstein.

Those who track obesity numbers nationwide as well as attempts by states to regulate soda and junk food on campus, say the California laws will have a significant effect on breaking down legislative barriers elsewhere.

"This is a great victory and is definitely the strongest law in the country because it includes high schools," says Michele Simon, director of the Center for Informed Food Choices, in Oakland, Calif. Connecticut, Arizona, Kentucky, New Mexico, and Oregon, have attempted K-12 bans which have either been watered down or had the high school portions of the ban dropped altogether. But high school is the place where the bulk of such products are sold, when kids are beginning to solidify habits for life, say nutritionists. "The best thing about this is that it raises the bar for the rest of the country," says Ms. Simon.

The new law is expected to be implemented over the next four years.

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