Unhealthy snacks should be removed from public schools. But the federal government might not be the best agent for accomplishing that.
Congress is considering a bill that would severely limit what food children could buy during the school day. The measure would ban schools from selling candy, sugary soda and salty, fatty food in school snack bars, vending machines and cafeteria lines.
While the intention may be good, we think control over school menus should remain at the local level, where school boards are best equipped to determine the needs of students in their districts. And local officials can deal with the problem of unhealthy snacks much more efficiently than the federal government, which is unlikely to be able to come up with a bill that would please enough special interest groups to pass.
It is ironic that the snack ban is an amendment attached to the farm bill, which, itself, is a major contributor to the high caloric content of many foods. Because the farm bill heavily subsidizes production of corn, not only for food but also for fuel, it also encourages production of high fructose corn syrup, the primary sweetener in thousands of snack foods and drinks.
The nutrition standards in the proposed ban would allow only plain bottled water and 8-ounce servings of fruit juice or plain or flavored low-fat milk with up to 170 calories to be sold in elementary or middle schools. High schools also could buy diet soda or sports drinks.
But many corporate interests already are lobbying hard against the bill. They want exemptions for sales of chocolate milk (Congress also subsidizes the dairy industry), and other snacks that would be barred by the bill. Nutritionists, by contrast, are fighting exceptions for diet drinks.
Here's a novel suggestion: Why not remove all snacks from schools? Take out the vending machines and stop selling anything but low-fat milk and bottled water in the lunchroom.
Generations of students attended schools that had no vending machines for snacks or soft drinks. The only liquid provided outside the cafeteria was water -- from a drinking fountain.
Students always will be able to bring unhealthy snacks, lunch food and drinks from home. But schools should not be obligated to be vendors for the snack and soft drink industries.
Unfortunately, those industries have made sweetheart deals with many school districts across the nation, providing scoreboards for stadiums, new computers or other school equipment in return for exclusive rights to sell food or soft drinks in schools. Thankfully, many school districts have decided not to make that devil's bargain.
But the question remains: Why do public schools sell anything to students during the regular school day but wholesome cafeteria food -- with an emphasis on fresh food, not just prepared food provided through the federal lunch program?
If local officials want students to eat healthier food, they can encourage that without a mandate from the federal government.
Local school districts should control what foods are offered at district schools.
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