Legislators not sold on new junk food rules for schools

In April the Iowa State Board of Education approved new nutrition standards:

A special task force drew up the standards, which set limits on calories, fat content, sugar and other nutritional measures. Carbonated beverages are banned. Caffeinated beverages and sports drinks are banned in elementary schools.

But the rules do not apply to food provided by school lunch or breakfast programs, items sold at concession stands or certain fundraisers or items provided by parents, teachers or others for class events.

Although I would have preferred tougher guidelines, these rules were a step in the right direction. To be more precise, they would have been a step in the right direction. After protests from some school officials, the State Board of Eduation “delayed most of the standards from going into effect until the 2010-11 school year.”

By that time, the regulations may have been relaxed, judging from what happened last week in the state legislature’s Administrative Rules Review Committee (unofficial motto: “Where good rules go to die”). The rest of the story is after the jump.

The Administrative Rules Review Committee voted on June 9 to let state legislators review the nutrition standards during the 2010 legislative session, which begins in January. Radio Iowa’s O.Kay Henderson reported,

The legislature approved the “Healthy Kids Act” in 2008, but the latest delay in implementing the law stems from a disagreement over which beverages should be banned in schools. Representative Dave Heaton, a Republican from Mount Pleasant, questions the Board of Education’s decision to prohibit diet sodas.

“What do you have against carbonation? To me it looks there’s a bias against bubbles,” Heaton said. “I understand the (concern about) caffeine. I understand (the concern about) sugar, but I don’t understand (the concern about) bubbles.”

Heaton’s a little behind the times. Regular consumption of diet soda is associated with weight gain. In a statement headlined, “Diet soda drinkers, beware!” the Academy of General Dentistry warned two years ago, “Drinking carbonated soft drinks regularly can contribute to the erosion of tooth enamel surfaces.” Even more worrying,

drinking diet sodas has been linked to developing metabolic syndrome, a group of risk factors for diabetes and heart disease including high blood pressure, blood fat (cholesterol) problems, and higher than normal blood glucose levels.

But in fairness, we shouldn’t expect our state legislators to be experts on the latest nutritional research. That’s why the Healthy Kids Act didn’t include specific guidelines and left the rule-making up to the State Board of Education’s task force.

You might wonder why state legislators are second-guessing the work of experts who spent considerable time reviewing studies on child nutrition. As Todd Dorman of the Cedar Rapids Gazette points out, this isn’t unusual:

Anyway, at the bottom line, this is typical legislative backsliding and nitpicking. They set up a task force, don’t like what they get and throw the whole thing into legislative oblivion. Next.

All too typical, as shown by the dust that continues to collect on the Iowa Climate Change Advisory Council’s recommendations for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But I digress.

Dorman continues,

And I guarantee you that diet soda is not the only reason this stuff is getting a legislative doubletake.  For one thing, some schools are not keen on losing revenue that kids spend on the junk they love. And this ongoing war against all things corn syrupy can’t be all that appealing to some rural lawmakers.

There’s also plenty of skepticism about the notion that kids will learn nutrition from a vending machine, no matter what it sells. As Sen. Merlin Bartz, R-Grafton, pointed out, the kids will bring food from home or roll to the convenience store down the street.

Money for schools is the real issue holding up these rules, as Charlotte Eby’s report makes clear:

The guidelines have been criticized by local school officials.

They said schools would lose revenue if they were no longer able to sell some of the items banned by the new guidelines and argued students would simply go off campus for food and drinks they like.

No one expects children to “learn nutrition from a vending machine,” and we can’t police what kids obtain at home or off-campus. But why should schools make it more convenient for kids to pick up junk food or drinks? If we funded education adequately, schools wouldn’t have to raise extra cash through unhealthy offerings or urging parents to buy Tyson chicken products.

Schools aren’t the only ones with a financial incentive to relax the nutritional standards. The beverage industry has a strong lobbying arm, and I’m sure they’ll give plenty of attention and campaign contributions to legislators who will review the rules during next year’s session. Look how well things worked out for the nursing home industry this year.

If we’re lucky, strong federal standards will get the worst junk out of schools across the country:

The Health School Food Brigade is advocating for a bill, introduced into the House by Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) and into the Senate by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), that calls on the USDA to update the standards of “foods of minimal nutritional value” based on current science and eliminates the time and place rule once and for all. The bill is known as “The Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act” (S.934 in the Senate and H.R.1324 in the House), and it will hopefully be passed along with this year’s Child Nutrition Reauthorization.

What a radical concept, Senator Harkin–using current science to formulate nutritional standards for schools. Even better, Iowa’s Administrative Rules Review Committee won’t have jurisdiction over this federal bill if it passes.

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