School junk food out of control, claims report

By Anthony Fletcher

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Nutrition

The proliferation of junk food in US schools is out of control,
according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office

The study claims that nearly nine out of 10 schools offer junk foods to kids out of vending machines, school stores, and via "a la carte" lines right in the cafeteria.

Despite high profile voluntary bans from industry, the report concludes that schools are pretty much saturated with junk food, and that middle schools seem to be getting worse, not better.

"This study should be a wake up call to all Americans, and specifically to those of us in Congress who have stood idly by as more and more junk food inundates our schools,"​ said Senator Tom Harkin, who requested the study alongside other legislators out of growing concern for adolescent health and nutrition.

"The childhood obesity epidemic is real, and the time to act is now."

Meals provided through the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program must meet federal nutritional standards to receive federal reimbursements. However, foods sold through snack lines, vending machines, and school snack bars are not subject to this requirement.

The report found that 83 percent of elementary schools, 97 percent of middle schools, and 99 percent of high schools offer foods for sale at school other than through the National School Lunch or School Breakfast Program. In addition, five out of six of the most commonly sold items in school food stores are of poor nutritional quality.

This is despite the fact that 38 states considered school nutrition bills last year, most of which included a vending machine component. At least 14 laws have now been enacted, most recently in California. However, the GAO report makes it clear that the level of nutrition in schools remains a lot to be desired.

The report is also highly critical of legislators who have put the rights of Coke, Pepsi, and other junk-food makers "ahead of the things that parents value-their kids' education and health"​.

Connecticut governor Jodi Rell for example recently threw out a bill that would have outlawed soft drinks and junk food in schools because it "undermines the control and responsibility of parents with school-aged children".​ But others think differently. State Senate president Pro Tem Donald Williams, who sponsored the legislation, estimated that soft drink and vending companies spent more than $250,000 lobbying against the bill out of concern that it would set a national precedent.

The GAO report once again turns up the pressure on food industry executives and legislators to react to a growing crisis. The issue of childhood obesity in the US is now a mainstream political issue that cannot be ignored.

"To me, even more frightening is the fact that 16 percent of the children in this country are obese,"​ said Dr Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "That number has increased by at least two times over the last 20 years."

Another worrying fact is that Type II Diabetes, which used to be known as adult onset diabetes, is now increasingly being diagnosed in kids, adding to the cardiovascular risk profile of children.

"Increasing nutritionally valuable options in our schools should not be a suggestion, it should be a requirement,"​ said Senator Patrick Leahy. "We must reverse the trend of expanding the availability of unhealthy food options in our schools."

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