US schools urged to cut soda sales, promote fruit

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A massive survey of vending machines in American schools finds that
75 per cent of the drinks and 85 per cent of the snacks sold are of
poor nutritional value, says the active consumer pressure group the
Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). Sugar drinks and
candy top the list, whereas water, diet and milk drinks, and fruit
were the small minority, writes Lindsey Partos.

Schools in the US have been under some pressure of late to change the contents of their vending machines in order to give school children healthy options. The CSPI​ contends that all foods sold out of vending machines, school stores, and other venues outside of the official school lunch programme should make positive contributions to children's diets and health.

"It's hard enough for parents to guide their children's food choices, but it becomes virtually impossible when public schools are peddling junk food throughout the school day,"​ said CSPI nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan.

The study of 1,420 vending machines in 251 schools found that of the drinks sold in the 13,650 vending-machine slots surveyed, 70 per cent were sugary drinks such as soda, juice drinks with less than 50 per cent juice, iced tea, and sports drinks. Only 14 per cent of the sodas were diet, and 12 per cent of the drinks available were water. Just 5 per cent of drink options were milk but of those, 57 per cent were high-fat whole or 2 per cent milk.

Looking at the snack foods sold in the machines, confectionery (42 per cent), potato chips (25 per cent) and sweet baked goods (13 per cent) accounted for 80 per cent of the options. Of 9,723 snack slots in all the vending machines surveyed, only 26 slots contained fruits or vegetables.

While the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) sets detailed standards for nutrient content and portion sizes for the official school meals, it currently has little authority to regulate foods sold outside those meals, whether in vending machines or a la carte (snack) lines in cafeterias. According to CSPI, Congress needs to give USDA more authority to regulate such foods in order to preserve the integrity of the federal school lunch programme, in which the federal government invests $8.8 billion a year.

"Junk foods in school vending machines compete with, and ultimately undermine, the nutritious meals offered by the federal school lunch program,"​ said Democrat Senator Tom Harkin. "Congress should step in and ensure that soda, candy, chips, and cookies don't become the de facto school lunch. The USDA needs to set standards for all foods sold in schools that participate in the federal school lunch programme."

Despite the financial pressures on school systems that lead them to sell junk food in the first place, some schools are voluntarily setting higher nutrition standards for vending machine foods. As it happens, the CSPI said, those school districts are doing well financially by doing good -in other words, they are not experiencing a drop-off in revenue by switching to healthier foods.

"Though many assume that vending machines will only be profitable if they are stocked with junk foods, we have not seen a loss in revenue by switching to healthier options,"​ said Carolyn P. Whitehead, the health and physical education coordinator for McComb, Mississippi school district, which now sells only water and 100 per cent fruit juice in vending machines.

But the CSPI's attempt to point the finger at soda manufacturers for rising levels of obesity and other health problems has not been taken lying down.

"The survey grossly mischaracterises student beverage consumption and ignores important student nutrition data that conflict with it,"​ claimed the US National Soft Drink Association (NSDA).

"New, independent data show that only 20 per cent of secondary school students consume any beverages at all from school vending machines during the school week. According to an evaluation of data obtained from the National Family Opinion WorldGroup's Share of Intake Panel (NFO SIP), among students who consumed beverages from school vending machines, the average intake of regular carbonated soft drinks was only 12.5 ounces, or slightly more than one 12-ounce can, a week, and the average intake of juice drinks and sports drinks was less than half that amount."

According to the NSDA, an assessment of the student soft drink consumption data, prepared by statistician Michael E. Ginevan and published in the April issue of the Journal of Pediatrics, suggests that "eliminating all vending machines appears to be an overly broad policy response that will have a very limited impact, if any, on childhood overweight".

He added that the amount of soft drinks consumed each week from school vending machines "does not appear to be excessive and can be easily balanced by even modest levels of physical activity"​.

Kathleen Dezio, spokeswoman for the National Soft Drink Association, said: "Soft drink companies offer the schools a variety of beverages, including water, juice, juice drinks, sports drinks, regular soft drinks and diet soft drinks, and parents and local school administrators, not CSPI or the government, should determine the product mix that is appropriate for their students."

She also accused the CSPI report of erroneously suggesting that soft drinks are displacing milk consumption among students, citing a study by researchers at the Center for Food and Nutrition Policy (CFNP) which found that calcium intake among US adolescents, although inadequate, had remained a constant since the 1970s. Consumption of soft drinks and other non-dairy beverages was not associated with reduced calcium intake.

"This is most likely because milk and soft drinks are not close dietary substitutes. Rather, the data suggest that when trade-offs occur, it is more likely to be between carbonated soft drinks, fruit drinks and ades,"​ the CFNP said.

Furtehrmore, data released by Dairy Management suggests that annual fluid milk beverage consumption among kids reached the highest level in 10 years - 28 gallons per capita in 2001.

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