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New Rules Planned for School Vending Machines Nationwide

Tuesday, February 21, 2012 - 07:46 AM

Not everyone loves the policies -- or the commercials -- but Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's emphasis on healthier living habits seems to have had some impact on New Yorkers, who now have a life expectancy of 80.6 years compared with 78.2 years for the United States as a whole.

It's too soon to tell whether the switch to healthier food in school cafeterias, and in school vending machines, has had a discernible effect on childhood obesity here. But now the Obama administration seems to be following in New York's footsteps and is considering imposing similar vending machine rules on all the nation's schools, The New York Times reports on Tuesday.

The Obama administration is working on setting nutritional standards for foods that children can buy outside the cafeteria. With students eating 19 percent to 50 percent of their daily food at school, the administration says it wants to ensure that what they eat contributes to good health and smaller waistlines. The proposed rules are expected within the next few weeks.

Last year lobbyists for the food and beverage industries mounted a campaign that persuaded Congress to roll back some of the rules that the Obama administration wanted to place on school lunches, as part of its nationwide campaign against childhood obesity.

Advocates for the new vending machine restrictions expect a similar battle; after all, according to a study by the National Academy of Sciences, about $2.3 billion worth of snack foods and beverages are sold annually in schools nationwide, The Times reports.

An industry representative said they generally supported the new vending machine rules. “But we are a little concerned that they might make the rules too stringent,” James A. McCarthy, president of the Snack Food Association, a trade group in Washington, told The Times.

The city's Education Department already has rules governing the amount of sugar, salt and fat that can be included in products sold in school vending machines. Fourteen high schools in the city are also engaged in a pilot program in which junk foods are not just eliminated but are replaced by healthy snacks like fruit and vegetables, Winnie Hu reported in SchoolBook in October. That report also provided a list of the food and beverage guidelines the city has established, as well as the approved brands and types of food to be sold in school vending machines.

Also on the national front, The Times reported over the weekend that at least one of the candidates seeking the Republican presidential nomination has expressed interest in the public schools: Rick Santorum. But perhaps not the kind of interest that public school advocates might hope for.

According to a report by Trip Gabriel off the campaign trail in Cumming, Ga., Mr. Santorum criticized the government's role in public education, seeming to advocate instead for home schooling. Specifically, he noted that public schools arose “when people came off the farms where they did home-school or have the little neighborhood school, and into these big factories, so we built equal factories called public schools.”

The Times reports:

Education reformers on both the left and right criticize the uniformity of instruction that dates from mass public education. But Mr. Santorum, who home-schooled some of his own children, makes many education advocates nervous because he seems to want to substantially scale back or cancel federal and state guidelines on standards and equality of access.

The Times notes that Mr. Santorum, who is now surging in the nominating race, is being more closely scrutinized for his remarks on education, religion, women's issues and health care.

The remarks might win Mr. Santorum further support from evangelical Christians and Catholics who have been galvanized by the Catholic Church’s opposition to the president’s insistence that religious-affiliated hospitals and schools offer health plans with free contraception.

But the issue also risks pushing away voters, especially women, who find in such stances an assault on women’s control over their own health decisions.

Public schools remain closed for the rest of this week. Enjoy the February break.

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