business news in context, analysis with attitude

Good story over on that connects the dots on some of the ongoing developments in the story that focuses on a simple question: what should be the government’s role in legislating what kinds of foods are sold and served in the nation’s public schools?

The story begins with the decision by New Jersey lawmakers this week to expel junk food and soft drinks from public elementary schools, with some restrictions in middle schools and high schools. The regulations take effect in the 2007-2008 school year, and are considered among the most restrictive in the nation; 17 states are in various stages of considering and/or adopting school nutrition guidelines. reports that “the new rules prevent the sale or serving of foods during the school day that are high in fat and sugar, banning all drinks except lowfat milk, water and 100 percent fruit or vegetable juices from elementary schools. Portions of whole milk will be rationed to a half-pint per student, and only on request. Schools also will be required to cut back on foods containing trans fats, such as cookies and crackers, and high-fat ice cream. Frozen yogurt or other low-calorie desserts will be available.

The restrictions affect not just cafeterias, but also vending machines and snack bars, and even on-campus fundraisers run by various groups.” And, classes on nutrition must be taught in every school district.

It isn’t just states that are considering such bans; some local school districts are considering making similar moves on their own. Take, for example, the board of education in Yakima, Washington, which “is considering a ban on all sales of sugary soft drinks and snacks starting this fall,” according to the Yakima Herald-Republic.

But this isn’t a case of government imposing its will. The recommendation to ban such foods was made by a 20-person community advisory committee.

According to the paper, “the recommendations set a benchmark for defining healthy foods and beverages based on serving size, fat, sodium and sugar content. But such a change, some fear, would stymie student fund-raising efforts” – which always seems to be one of the chief objections to nutritional regulations for public schools.

That wasn’t the case last week at the annual Produce Marketing Association (PMA) Retail Produce Solutions Conference, in Monterey, California. As MNB reported last week and notes this morning, there was a disagreement between food industry professionals who supported nutritional standards for public schools, and a consumer panel that felt it was largely their responsibility as parents to deal with the issue, not the government’s.

SupermarketGuru has addressed similar issues in the past in polls of users. In one poll, about the marketing of junk food to kids, about half of those who responded felt that the government should allow on the marketing to children of foods that meet certain minimal nutritional guidelines, and 15 percent of respondents thought we should ban all food marketing to kids.

And, in another poll, while six out of ten people thought that children’s weight problems should not be addressed on their report cards, there was strong support for daily physical education,, nutrition classes and healthier cafeteria offerings.
KC's View:
Part of the problem is that they keep moving the line on what consists of good nutrition and what doesn’t. The Washington Post, for example, reports that a new study by Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital suggests that “children who drink more than three servings of milk each day are prone to becoming overweight.”

So it isn’t just junk food and soft drinks coming under attack, but also foods that used to be thought of as “healthy.”

And despite all the debate and focus on nutrition issues, a new study from the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center at Tufts University suggests that “soft drinks have replaced the traditional staple of white bread for the 67 percent of people who say they drink soda, constituting some 14 percent of total daily calories. For those who drink sweet fruit drinks or similar beverages, these make up about 11 percent of their total diets.”

This is a fascinating story on lots of levels, not least because it is helping to frame how our children are going to view food and nutrition issues. And that is a subject that should be of interest to every food industry participant, because it will affect how these people shop and eat for decades to come, and how they influence their children.

We agree that in a perfect world, parents would dictate intelligent nutrition standards to their children, who would in turn adhere to those rules and eat in a smart and judicious fashion. But let’s face it…in many cases, this just isn’t going to happen.

As parents, this is ultimately our responsibility. But acting on that responsibility includes making sure that schools do a complete job of educating our children. And this includes making sure that kids aren’t served slop in cafeterias, that they learn about nutrition in the classroom, and that they get regular and vigorous physical education classes – all of which should serve them well as they get older and that will make them more rounded and educated human beings.

The food industry needs to be part of the debate, and its executives need to speak about these issues not just as professionals, but as parents and citizens.