published Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

National food fight looms

The United States is in for an epic food fight. It will start within moments after the Obama administration releases new nutritional standards that would restrict the snacks available for sale in schools. Whenever it occurs, the fight will be a doozy. What else could it be when millions of students and their parents, cashed-strapped school systems, politically connected industries and more than $2.3 billion will be involved?

The new rules, expected to be made public in the next few weeks, will be an adjunct to earlier regulations that significantly changed the government's in-cafeteria school lunch program. Those rules reduced the amount of sugar, salt and fat allowed in meals. They, like the expected rules on snack foods, are part of the government's laudable but needlessly controversial effort to address the U.S. epidemic of childhood obesity.

Not everyone regards changing kids' eating habits as a commendable goal. They should. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 20 percent of children in the country are now obese. Thus it is difficult to ignore the direct connection between obesity and schools. Experts report that school-aged children often consume up to half of their daily food at school. No matter to some.

Many parents and special interest groups resent what they view as unwarranted government intrusion. Other parents and health advocates welcome the governmental role. School systems fear that new rules will reduce profits earned from snack sales. The vending machine and snack food industries are upset at the prospect of any reduction in what is an estimated $2.3 billion in annual school sales. Given those conflicting views, the forthcoming proposal about school vending machines will cause an uproar similar to the one that followed changes in school cafeteria guidelines.

The food industry fought hard then to block what it perceived to be overly harsh rules. They were successful in some instances, blocking, for example, the sensible demands that tomato paste on pizza not be counted as a vegetable and that a limit be placed on the mount of potatoes the could be served to youngsters. But health advocates scored victories, too.

In many schools now, baked, dry-roasted, low-sodium and reduced calorie snacks and drinks are sold with no significant loss in sales. That pleases schools which use snack sales profits to fund sports, art, music and other programs hit hard by funding cutbacks. Similar accommodation, not debate fueled by self-interest, should greet the upcoming administration proposals to further tighten snack food regulations.

Given the direct and indirect costs associated with childhood obesity -- frightening increases in childhood diabetes, for example -- the administration's goal is worthy. That's especially so in this region, where childhood obesity rates are the nation's highest and less nutritious snack foods in schools remain the rule rather than the exception.

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