Recently published research on the effectiveness of laws that regulate the nutritional value of snack foods sold in public schools offers some hearty food for thought for Utah parents, educators and lawmakers.
The study, published in the journal Pediatrics, compared rates of weight gain among school kids in states with strict laws on what kinds of food schools can offer for sale outside of school meal programs, compared to kids in states like Utah, with no such laws. And the study shows rather uniformly that kids with access to sugar-rich vending machine snacks and soft drinks tend to gain more weight over time and face a greater risk of obesity.
The data might seem to merely confirm the obvious, but a proposed law in Utah to regulate vending machine food in schools was defeated in 2010 partly because there was a lack of evidence at the time on whether such a law might be effective. Now the verdict is in, and it puts the onus back on the Legislature to reconsider its reticence to set nutritional standards for the kinds of foods kids can buy in school vending machines.
The issue is not trivial. Rates of childhood and adolescent obesity have tripled since 1980. One in five children ages 6 to 11 is considered obese under standards set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and another large group is considered near obese. They are, as a result, at a much higher risk for serious health complications as they age.
The federal government currently regulates the nutritional content of food offered during school meal programs, and the food and drink for sale separately – but only during meal hours. It's up to the states to regulate, or not, the kinds of food and drink available outside the lunch hour.
Utah might have joined a number of states with such restrictions two years ago when the Legislature considered a "Vending Machines in Public Schools" bill sponsored by then Sen. Patricia Jones, D-Salt Lake. The bill died after it struggled against two strong crosscurrents. The food industry lobbied against it on grounds there was no evidence tying vending machine food to health problems. And several lawmakers saw it as a case of government over-reach.
One opponent in the Senate said, "I feel like we're taking away the responsibilities from Mom and Dad."
Another way to look at it is that the moms and dads who set rules for their kids on what's appropriate to eat might appreciate having backup from the schools, lest their kids bypass the family kitchen rules by plunking down change for a quick candy bar and soda pop during afternoon recess.
The authors of the study in Pediatrics acknowledge such laws are fought on grounds they further the growth of a "nanny state." And while it is appropriate to be wary of any instances of government creep into the daily habits of its citizens, it's hard to argue that denying kids the right to buy a certain kind of snack in school is a disruption of anyone's civil liberties.
The research was commissioned because there is growing concern among public health officials that the trend toward obesity among children is not abating. In that context, the new research, if nothing else, is certainly something to chew on.