S.C. lawmakers have no appetite for tougher student nutrition bill

COLUMBIA -- Despite support from nutritionists, S.C. farmers and the state's largest school district, a bill aimed at improving students' eating habits hit a dead end Tuesday.

But its chief sponsor vows to fight on, citing the state's childhood obesity rates, which compare unfavorably with those of much of the rest of the country.

"This is too important to just drop," said Rep. Bakari Sellers, D-Barnwell. "We'll amend it. We'll find something to tack it on to. It's not the end."

On Tuesday, a House panel voted down a ban on the sale of sodas and fatty snack foods in vending machines in public schools.

The bill would have:

• Prohibited the sale of all sodas. Only water, milk, certain fruit juices and sports drinks would have been allowed in vending machines in middle and high schools. Also, vending machine snacks were to be limited to granola bars, nuts and other more nutritious snacks.

• Set higher nutritional standards for cafeteria meals. For example, food items that have 35 percent of their calories from fat would be banned.

According to the Trust for America's Health, nearly 19 percent of South Carolina's children are overweight, ranking the Palmetto State seventh among other states.

The bill's Achilles' heel was a requirement that the new nutritional standards apply to schools' refreshment stands during sporting events and other after-school activities.

"When you're looking at high schools, (food revenue) is a big financial piece," said Rep. Michael Anthony, D-Spartanburg, a retired football coach. One year, he said, his school earned $13,000 in refreshment sales during five home games.

Schools use vending machine revenue for a variety of purposes, including student field trips, band uniforms, athletic equipment, tutoring programs and proms.

Some Greenville high schools earn as much as $70,000 annually from vending machine sales, said Quentin Cavanagh, marketing and training specialist for Greenville County schools. "None of (the principals) want to sell this stuff. But they need the revenue," Cavanagh told the House panel. The school district, the largest in the state, is supporting the bill.

In 2001, the Richland 1 school board, concerned about obesity-related health issues among children, became one of the only S.C. districts to ban sodas and fatty snack foods from its vending machines.

But the bottled water and granola bars that replaced the Cokes and Snickers candy bars were not as popular with students. As a result, some high schools suffered big cuts in vending machine revenue for student activities. A.C. Flora High School, for example, saw its revenue drop from more than $21,000 to around $8,000.

Some lawmakers who opposed the bill considered it a stand for local control.

"For us to step in and decide for every school board what they should be doing, I think is flawed," said Rep. Carl Gullick, R-Lake Wylie.

Both the S.C. School Boards Association and the S.C. Association of School Administrators agreed.

"We support the intention of the legislation (to improve students' eating habits)," said Scott Price of the School Boards Association. "But the local boards and communities should be making those decisions for themselves."

Clarke said it's not that simple.

"Yes, school districts could ban these food choices, but some of them are not doing anything. Meanwhile, the obesity epidemic is not stopping."