Bogus Junk Food Bans & Bait-n-Switch Tactics Proliferate School Policy

childhood-obesity.jpgForty-eight hours after I wrote this article about the confusing USDA school guidelines and manufacturers marketing tactics to swap ‘lesser calorie junk’ to replace the worst offenders, today’s front page S.F. Chronicle coverage reinforced the absurdity of it all using case study examples of Bay area schools.

California has led the way in legislative successes, passing statutes like SB12, intended to ditch empty-calorie snacks and fatty entrees in schools, but the loopholes are akin to using a colander to hold water. Food of minimal nutrition value still means “junk is junk,” even when new reformulations squeak under the wire of ‘nutritional guidelines.’

The shell game will continue until schools put children’s health before profit and reformulate their campus food-service programs to remove the dollar driven concession stand issues completely. Even with all the huffing and puffing, snack food manufacturers will continue to blow the school’s straw house down as long as there are pennies in those little piggies making it worthwhile to tweak to meet the Ca. nutritional guidelines.

My favorite line in the Chronicle article by Stacy Finz is when she cites one of the policy sponsors, (Howard Goldstein, E.D. of Ca. Ctr. For Public Health Advocacy) who said, “If we had banned candy bars, the manufacturers would have said, ‘This isn’t a candy bar, this is a brownie. If we had banned brownies, they would have said, ‘This isn’t a brownie, it’s a cookie.’ If we had banned cookies, they would have said, ‘This is bread.’

To me, this strikes at the heart of the matter, because it hints at the complexity of profit motive trumping public health and student welfare under the guise of choice and voice.

I never thought I’d find myself taking a more strident stand than the ‘food police’ but frankly, I’m working in the trenches with kids waddling around at risk for countless health problems, lifestyle cancers, and socioemotional issues related to obesity.

CSPI’s solid policy options make sense to me, yet even director of nutrition policy Margo Wootan has gingerly tiptoed around the lack of traction, touting kudos on progress instead. “About 22 states are already limiting the sale of sugary drinks in some grades,” she said.

Super. Why not all 50 states, in all grades if kids’ health is seriously at stake here? In California, schools are in the poor-house, the meal programs aren’t subsidized, and as long as the profit motive is still in play, with schools needing to keep financially afloat selling ‘lesser junk’ there will be a ‘fat is fiscal’ problem, period. In my opinion:

Schools exist to teach. Not to regulate, monitor, sell, or profit from junk food.

If the childhood obesity epidemic is truly costing the nation billions in long term fallout with no bailout, then why the heck are we dinkin’ around with nuances, kanoodling political verbiage and swapping soda for sports drinks?

As I wrote here a year ago in the San Mateo Times, (in this article) Why Childhood Obesity Prevention Seems Wafer Thin, it seems readily apparent that we either need to ‘put up or shut up’ on this childhood obesity epidemic and quit carping about it or get genuine in our efforts universally and consistently.

Admittedly, once upon a time I was genuinely optimistic seeing some of the proposed ‘best practices’ and marketing mechanisms to ‘sell’ healthier foods based on positive revenue changes and actually liked the guidelines proposed at the Alliance for a Healthier GenerationIt all seemed like a common sense compromise…treating everyone respectfully in a non-regulatory win-win.

I’d even hoped the newer, more stringent IOM guidelines would strengthen the state standards to become a normative benchmark too…But guidelines are guidelines, no matter how rigorous the recommendations are, they’re voluntary.

The marketing machine is hard to keep up with, and accountability and responsibility have no ethical measure for enforcement. You can ASK profiteers to do the right thing, but do they have to? No, they do not.

Have snack manufacturers complied? They’ve absolutely made serious headway on the food front with reformulations and portion controls, all bold (consumer pressured) moves in the right direction…

Yet here it is a year later, and in California, we’ve got school ‘watchdogs’ that don’t bark, regulations without teeth, compliance that’s arbitrary and school staff themselves that can’t keep their own hands out of the Cheetos bag of profit-mongering and backroom ‘field deals’ for uniforms, sports gear, branded sponsorships and more.

In short, as Stacy Finz’ Chron cover story spells out, ‘it ain’t workin.’

Mind you, no one wants California schools to become “food enforcers” with a Stalinistic “check your chips at the door” mentality, nor can our districts afford to ‘police’ offenders for compliance. (let’s get real, they don’t even have enough staff and supplies to start the year without begging for items, donors, and wishlists to teach)

But do schools need to be aiding and abetting the junk food giants by spoon feeding chubby cherubs with easy access on campus and ulterior profit motive? No, they do not.

Unless we can remove both of those factors and steer kids towards healthier fare on campus by default, it seems the childhood obesity cycle will continue unabated.

I totally agree with Dr. Wootan when she said, “USDA should be encouraging the availability and sale of healthy foods in schools, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and reasonable portions of low-fat milk and real fruit juice…There’s enough junk food available in society without putting it in schools. Our kids deserve better than junk.”

That’s my story and I’m sticking with it.

And what do kids have to say?

When confronting some truculent middle schoolers who felt “entitled” to junk food on campus as a “right” one said, “If it were never offered in the first place it would be one thing, but to not have that option just because some fat kids can’t control themselves isn’t fair.”

Our math whiz neighbor Chi-na, who works in the middle-school food concession as cashier for bonus points recited the top-selling menu items for me, “double mini-cheeseburger, Baked Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, Gatorade, Chocolate chip cookies, pizza, in that order”

(Gee, really sounds like that junk food ban worked, eh?) I asked her, “Would kids think it was ‘unfair’ if the school shuttered the snack stand?” She slapped her hand to her forehead as if thet thought was just too much to bear…

Hmn…How did it all come to this?

Is it “fair” that we’ll end up paying long term health care costs of these pre-pubescent porkers out of our tax money? Is it fair that we pay taxes for schools subsidizing this never-ending cycle? Is it fair that we give lip-service to a serious health concern while buying into ‘healthier’ media messages that are as artificial as the sweeteners themselves?

Seems to me that even if highly processed drek were no longer sold in schools, kids would continue to have the “choice” to snarf whatever they want via lunch swaps and tradeouts, fast food joints and concessionaires…

They’d just have to buy their junk food OFF-campus, and maybe even WALK to it.

Seems only “fair”…and a small price to pay.

Visual Credit: Health in Motion

Resource Sidebar from Chronicle staff writer Stacy Finz’ article cites the following Ca. Law:


California’s School Food Nutrition Standards Bill (formerly SB12) went into effect on July 1.

Here are the highlights:

— Snacks sold in middle and high schools must be 250 calories or less; in elementary schools, they must be 175 calories or less.

— Fat can account for no more than 35 percent of a snack’s calories.

— Saturated fat can account for no more than 10 percent of a snack’s calories.

— Sugar can be no more than 35 percent by weight.

— Fruit, vegetables, nuts, legumes, nut butters, seeds, eggs and cheese are excluded from the regulations, as is food brought from home.

— Individually sold entrees such as pizza, burritos and hamburgers must be 400 calories or less, with no more than 4 grams of fat per 100 calories.

— Other state law bans sale of soda in elementary and middle schools, although it can still be sold in high schools. Sugary athletic drinks are permitted. However, half of the drinks sold in high schools must be juice, water or low-fat or nonfat milk. In 2009, all soda sales will be banned from high schools.

Related 2007 Shaping Youth Articles Re: Junk Food/Childhood Obesity

(For more on peer drive junk food allure, extreme lunchbox makeovers and 2006 archives, click on “Childhood Obesity” category!)

Bogus Junk Food Bans & Bait-n-Switch Tactics Proliferate School Policy

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Advergaming Arcades Shift Toward Virtual Villages & Kid Vid

Shaping Youth Slams Capri Sun With Counter-Marketing

Obesity Risk Twice as High in Hispanic Children

Don’t miss earlier 2006 food features like:

School Sit-ups Sponsored by Soda-n-snacks?

The preteen lunch bunch: Selling healthy choices

And more…



  1. And this update/recap of the SF Chron article summarized by should be added as well:

    “Food Manufacturers Revamping Snacks to Keep Products in California Schools

    Oct 1, 2007

    California education officials say that a new law banning the sale of junk food and other unhealthy fare in schools has done little to improve students’ food options because food manufacturers have simply reformulated snack products to meet the nutrition standards, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. Approved in 2005, the California Food Nutrition Standards Bill was designed to reduce childhood obesity and related diseases by eliminating unhealthy foods in schools and encouraging students to eat healthy meals. Under the plan, snacks sold in schools must have less than 35 percent of their calories from fat and less than 35 percent of their weight from sugar. The statute also limits snacks sold in middle and high schools to 250 calories and those sold in elementary schools to 175 calories. In addition, lunch entrees must have no more than 400 total calories and four grams of fat per 100 calories. The law, however, does not restrict how many snacks and entrees each student can purchase. According to food industry data, food manufacturers revamped more than 10,000 products last year to reduce portion size or sugar or fat content. Food manufacturers contend that they undertook the changes to improve health and wellness, adding that the reformulated products ensure that consumers can adopt a healthier lifestyle without losing their snack options. However, Marion Nestle, professor of food studies and public health at New York University, notes that “taking away a little fat and a little sugar does not convert highly processed foods into healthful foods.” She adds that school nutrition policies that rely on calorie, sugar and fat limits too easily allow for the inclusion of foods with minimal nutritional value. Harold Goldstein, the executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, who helped create California’s school nutrition policy, contends that even if the law targeted individual foods, manufacturers would have found ways to keep their products on campus. Several school districts have begun to eliminate unhealthy foods, while others now use local, organic produce in their lunches. However, many school officials say they feel pressured to keep selling less healthy fare to meet budgetary constraints and remain competitive with off-campus eating options (Finz, San Francisco Chronicle, 9/28/07).

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