A Federal Effort to Push Junk Food Out of Schools | GARDINER HARRIS | 02/08/10

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Read More: childhood obesity, junk food, legislation, schools

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The Obama administration will begin a drive this week to expel Pepsi, French fries and Snickers bars from the nation's schools in hopes of reducing the number of children who get fat during their school years.

In legislation, soon to be introduced, candy and sugary beverages would be banned and many schools would be required to offer more nutritious fare.

To that end, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will deliver a speech Monday at the National Press Club in which he will insist, according to excerpts provided to The Times, that any vending machines that remain in schools be "filled with nutritious offerings to make the healthy choice the easy choice for our nation's children."

The first lady, Michelle Obama, said last month that she would lead an initiative to reduce childhood obesity, and her involvement "shows the importance all of us place on this issue," Mr. Vilsack said.

The administration's willingness to put Mrs. Obama's popularity on the line is a calculated bet that concerns about childhood obesity have become so universal that the once-partisan fight over who should control school food offerings -- the federal government or school boards -- has subsided.

But Republican support is far from certain.

Senator Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican and the ranking member on the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, met at the White House with Mrs. Obama on Tuesday to talk about childhood obesity. And while Mr. Chambliss released a statement saying that "schools play an important role in shaping nutrition habits of young children," an aide refused to say whether he would support a ban on junk foods.

Other Republicans said they would wait to see legislation before signaling whether they would put aside long-held views that school boards should control food offerings.

Senator Blanche Lincoln, a Democrat from Arkansas and the chairwoman of the committee, said she would introduce the legislation within weeks. "It's a big priority for me, other members and the administration," she said.

While Democrats have coalesced around the idea of denying sweets to schoolchildren, many students are not keen. When Asthtyn Bowling, a 16-year-old junior at Orange County High School in Orange, Va., was told of the looming ban, she was shocked.

"That would be terrible!" she said.

The legislation would reauthorize the government's school breakfast and lunch programs. It aims to transform the eating habits of many of the nation's children and teenagers, but some school officials say it will further crimp already strained budgets.

In addition to banning sugary treats, the new rules would require many schools to offer more nutritious options, which could be expensive. The administration has proposed spending $1 billion more each year on the $18 billion meals program, but the increase may not be enough to cover the extra costs.

The National PTA and a host of health and medical advocacy groups support the legislation, but local school officials are lukewarm.

"Our feeling is that school boards are acutely aware of the importance of ensuring that children have access to healthy and nutritious food," said Lucy Gettman of the National School Boards Association.

The bill would exempt bake sales, parties and other occasional offerings of sweets. But drawing the line between routine and unusual can get tricky.

"What do you do about the Spanish club buying Kit Kat bars and selling them in the cafeteria?" asked Doug Davis, director of food service for the City of Burlington Public Schools in Vermont.

The National School Lunch Program serves 31 million children in more than 100,000 schools. It was started in 1946 to ensure that children get enough to eat after health problems related to malnutrition were found in an alarming number of World War II draftees. Now, health officials are also worried that children are eating too much of the wrong foods. About two-thirds of the nation's adults and a third of its children are overweight -- double the rates of 1980.

Junk food has long been banned from official school breakfast and lunch programs, but many schools offer fatty foods and sweets outside of these programs or have vending machines with sodas and candy, with the money often used to finance sports or other extracurricular programs. The legislation would require that all school offerings comply with strict new nutritional guidelines.

Many schools have changed their offerings. Five years ago, fewer than a third of the nation's school districts put limits on students' access to candy and sugary drinks. That share jumped to two-thirds by 2008, according to a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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