S.C. bill requiring healthier school food advances

The Associated PressFebruary 5, 2009 

Rep. Bakari Sellers urged legislators to help "kill the ills of childhood obesity" by giving students only healthy options to choose from, whether they're buying lunch in the cafeteria or plopping change into a vending machine.

"We can be a leader and head off a crisis," the 24-year-old Denmark Democrat said.

A year ago, the same House subcommittee slammed his idea, saying local school boards should decide what students can buy, especially since districts often rely on vending and other non-lunch-program sales to support academics and athletics.

But some tweaking -- such as allowing sales of diet sodas in high schools -- melted away most of his opposition, including the South Carolina Beverage Association, which worked with Sellers on the changes.

"I have less heartburn with this bill," Democratic Rep. Mike Anthony said. The Union teacher and coach noted it no longer affects concession sales at sport games, plays or band concerts. "If we can help one child to change their lifestyle, I'm all for this."

One legislator on the panel, Rep. Carl Gullick, R-Lake Wylie, still voted against the measure, calling it wrong-headed.

"Seldom, if ever, am I going to vote to strip more power away from citizens at the local level," the former York County Council chairman said.

The state School Boards Association also remains opposed for that reason.

Bill exceeds U.S. guidelines

The legislation would ban high-sugar, high-fat foods from being sold to students during the school day or during extracurricular student practices and meetings, whether it's in the lunch line or at fundraising bake sales.

While school lunch programs have moved to more healthy options -- such as baked chicken nuggets and wings or whole wheat pizza with low-fat cheese -- the bill exceeds U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines.

For example, the USDA stipulates school meals, on an average weekly basis, must get no more than 30 percent of calories from fat. So, schools could stay under the limit by pairing a slab of pizza with fruits and vegetables, for example, said Todd Bedenbaugh, director of school nutrition for the state Education Department.

The bill would put a limit of 35 percent of calories from fat per item, and 10 percent from saturated fat.

It also means schools can't offer the high-fat foods by bringing in outside vendors to sell them, for a cut of the profit. "It makes them provide healthier options," Bedenbaugh said. "It's a good start."

The bill puts calorie and fat restrictions on vending machine sales, meaning the M&Ms, Moon Pies and regular chips would have to go.

"This is, of course, a good thing, but it would impact revenues in the vending machines and school stores," said Walter Campbell, nutrition director for Charleston County schools. He said it would also initially impact school lunch-program sales, "but I think we would bounce back quickly."

The measure follows national, voluntary guidelines adopted by the American Beverage Association in 2006 that called for a three-year phase-in toward healthier drinks with fewer calories and smaller portions, said Jay Hicks, of the South Carolina affiliate.

South Carolina would join most states that restrict what's sold in vending machines or by vendors that compete with the school lunch program. It would join at least six other states that require school meals to be healthier than USDA guidelines, said Erik Peterson, spokesman for the Alexandria, Va.-based School Nutrition Association.

Those include California, which specifically bans frying, and Texas, which limits any item to 23 grams of fat, according to the group. Its position is that nutrition standards should be set at the federal level. Varying rules increases costs, and the federal reimbursement is limited to $2.57 per meal for poor students who can't pay, Peterson said.

But Natasha Nicol, a mother and pharmacist, said children's health is at stake. She said she was appalled when, during a recent visit to a Florence high school, she had to walk by eight soda machines and a Little Debbie snack store.

"The issues of diabetes and obesity in children is rampant. It's because of what they're exposed to," she said. "We can't control what parents do, but certainly in schools, we need to ensure they're exposed to proper nutrition."

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