Vol. 1, No. 5, 1979, pp. 22-23
When your school-age child walks out the door, armed with books and lunch money, will that money be spent on the food in the lunch line, or will it be spent on other snacks, instead?
That is one of the issues to be aired in a series of three public meetings to be sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture early in 1979. The meetings, to be held in Nashville, Detroit and Seattle, are the result of enormous public response, both supportive and critical, of a proposal by the Agriculture Department to restrict the sale of certain foods.
In April 1978, the Department of Agriculture proposed to restrict the sale of so-called “competitive foods” in schools until after the last lunch period.
“Competitive foods” are defined as any food sold in competition with federally-subsidized school food programs. They may be sold from vending machines, in a la carte cafeteria lines, or at separate snack bars. The restricted foods were to include candy, soda water, frozen desserts and chewing gum.
The lunch program, in addition to making use of farm surpluses, has always had two goals: to feed children a balanced meal and to teach them good eating habits. These goals are not being met, according to many concerned partnts and nutrition specialists.
Assistant Secretary of Agriculture Carol Tucker Foreman has announced the withdrawal of that proposal and has scheduled the public meetings to allow additional public scrutiny of and comment on the issue surrounding the competitive foods questions.
“Seeking public opinion before drafting new regulations underscores our commitment to broader public participation in the decision-making process of government,” Foreman said.
Specifically, the meetings will focus on standards on which to base a regulation, related to the following four topics: (I) nutrition education; (2) health; (3) eating habits; and (4) local administration and impact.
The lunch program, in addition to making use of farm surpluses, has always had two goals: to feed children
a balanced meal and to teach them good eating habits. These goals are not being met, according to many concerned parents and nutrition specialists.
Another issue, however, surfaced in schools whereby profits from the sale of competitive foods are used to buy band uniforms and/or support school social activities.
“Restriction would mean we wouldn’t have enough money for any activities,” says Lilly Fulton, a student council advisor. “We have to look at the positive aspects of well-financed and wellattended activities for the students.”
One of the other important issues is the impact of competitive foods on nutrition education. The Department wants to find out whether children get nutritional “messages” from the availability of competitive foods. They will seek public comment on how this affects children’s eating habits.
Students express the opinion that they have a right to choose their own diets. One girl writes, “I think the government should leave the so-called junk food alone because if we want to get rotten teeth or stomach aches … I think they should let us. We are old enough to know better.”
Nutrition experts disagree. Most maintain that schools should set an example in proper diet, encouraging students to develop healthier tastes in food.
Concerned supporters of the proposal also encourage restrictions on potato chips, pastries and uncarbonated drinks. One South Carolina food supervisor states, “This has definitely hurt our lunch participation. We cannot compete with potato chips, candy bars and soft drinks.”
A Texas cafeteria worker agrees. “What troubles me most is that we give the low-income children free and reduced lunches because they are not supposed to be able to afford the lunch. Then they go through the line and get their tray and throw all or most of it away and go to the machines and buy junk food for their lunch.”
The medical profession also supports the proposed restrictions. Many dentists said that foods with a high sugar content caused dental caries among school children. Some doctors warned that poor eating habits acquired early in life could increase the risk of diseases associated with poor nutrition.
The strongest objections to the proposal, however, do not seem to deal with its relative medical merits. Opponents to the action apparently resent government intrusion into the issue. A Garland, Texas, man says, “The right to sell competitive foods in schools is not a federal issue. It is a local right and a local responsibility.”
On the local level, where restrictions have been enforced, positive results have been obtained. In Prince George’s County, Maryland, the food service director found that “lunch sales rose by 11 percent after the County Board of Education banned minimally nutritious foods from sale during lunch time.”
The effect of the restrictions on plate waste is certainly a factor. Chocolate Manufacturers’ Association of America President Richard T. O’Connell maintains that competitive foods do not affect plate waste. He cites a U.S.D.A. study that does not attribute competitive foods as the cause of waste.
Others take a stance of compromise on the issue. “I would support a ban on sales until after the lunch hour,” says one mother, “and whenever such foods are sold, the selection should include nutritious foods such as apples, nuts, raisins, or yogurt.”
Perhaps the issue is most clearly seen by a Memphis, Tennessee, eighth grader, who writes: “We would love to have orange juice and many other kinds of juice to drink instead of soft drinks. It tastes better and fills you up more, but every time we go to buy some, it’s always empty.
“The school lunch is over-priced and raunchy tasting. So we buy potato chips and nutty bars, but it’s not by choice. If the Memphis board would get some cooks that could cook, we would eat the food. Because of the malnutrition and no food, we all have colds or sore throats. I just wanted you to know this … Hang in there and help us, please.”
The U.S.D.A. welcomes further comment on the competitive food issue. Written opinions should be sent to Margaret Glavin, Director, School Programs Division, Food Nutrition Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington, D.C. 20250.
A printed discussion of the topics to be considered at the meetings is available from Ms. Glavin on request. Anyone wishing to speak at the Nashville meeting should contact:
David Alspach or Edward Hightower Food and Nutrition Service U.S. Department of Agriculture 1100 Spring Street Atlanta, Ga. 30309 Phone: (404) 881-4259 Nashville residents call: (415) 251-5758