SAN FRANCISCO Despite a new law designed to ban the sale of junk food at California schools, the kiosk at Santa Clara High is stocked with chocolate-chip cookies, the lunch window at Novato High serves up potato chips and the concession stand at Albany High is doing a booming business in Cheetos.
But don't call the food police. All three districts are in compliance with the state law that requires snacks and individual entrees sold on campus to contain fewer calories and less fat and sugar.
It seems that while kids were preparing to go back to school this fall, food manufacturers were busy re-creating their products shrinking portions, eliminating trans fats and baking instead of frying to make them meet the requirements of the Food Nutrition Standards Bill by July 1.
The statute is intended to improve students' diets by nudging them into eating a well-rounded healthful lunch. But so far that goal has proved elusive. Some campuses, such as Piedmont Middle School, appear to be ignoring the regulations altogether. And others let kids make a meal of revamped snack foods.
According to food-industry statistics, in the past year more than 10,000 products have been either introduced or reformulated to contain less fat and sugar. Now, snacks such as Nutter Butters, Rice Krispies Treats, nacho-flavored Baked Doritos and barbecue Corn Nuts comply with the school-nutrition standards.
Although these products meet the letter of the law, do they meet the spirit?
"Taking away a little fat and a little sugar does not convert highly processed foods into healthful foods," said Marion Nestle, professor of food studies and public health at New York University and author of "What to Eat." "The kids are still eating junk foods."
The legislation, passed in 2005, was carried by former Sen. Martha Escutia, D-Montebello, and sponsored by the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the California School Boards Association. It was intended to reduce childhood obesity and diseases associated with poor nutrition by ridding schools of empty-calorie snacks and fattening entrees.
No longer, officials hoped, would kids be able to make a lunch out of a bag or two of Doritos from a campus vending machine or a couple of cookies from the snack cart. Ideally, officials anticipated that the snack bars on campus would be shuttered. The idea was that, without junk food, students would be lured into the cafeteria, where a full meal approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture awaited.
But Bay Area kids are still making lunches out of pizza, cookies and chips albeit mostly baked ones because those items continue to be sold.
Taylor Keating, a seventh-grader at Piedmont Middle School, bought a mini-pizza for lunch from the concession stand on campus earlier this week. But there are times, she said, when she'll skip the entree altogether and spend some of her lunch money on a bag of chips.
"One of my friends always eats chips and cookies for lunch," she said. "Her parents are really into being healthy, so that's her only chance to get junk food."
Food manufacturers won't talk about how they've reformulated their products for proprietary reasons, but companies such as Frito-Lay, Kellogg's and Kraft Foods all have snack lines that comply with the new law. They say they, too, want to fight the battle of the bulge, but they don't want to deprive consumers of choice.
"The industry is committed to providing products that promote health and wellness," said Robert Earl, senior director for nutrition policy at the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a trade group. "Companies are doing everything from portion packs to baked chips."
In order to adhere to California nutrition requirements, snacks sold in middle and high schools can have no more than 250 calories; in elementary schools, snacks must be 175 calories or less. No more than 35 percent of the snack's calories can come from fat and no more than 10 percent from saturated fat. Sugar is limited to 35 percent by weight.
Fruits, 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 can't be more than 400 calories, with a maximum of 4 grams of fat per 100 calories. The law does not limit how many snacks or entrees students can buy at a time.In addition, half of the drinks sold on high-school campuses must be juice, water and low-fat or non-fat milk. In 2009, all soda will be banned (it already is banned from elementary and middle schools). The sale of sugary athletic drinks is still permitted.
Distributed by Scripps Howard