Seattle Schools May Ease Junk Food Ban Amid Profit Loss

The Seattle School District is considering rewriting a policy enacted in 2004 that removed junk food from public schools, citing the ban's huge cut to revenues used to fund school programs.

When the Seattle School Board first implemented the policy seven years ago, the district was placed on the cutting edge of the battle against childhood obesity. Fatty snacks like candy bars and fried chips were stripped from vending machines and replaced with orange juice, water and granola bars.

But the change has reduced vending machine profits across the district to $17,000 this year, from $214,000 before the ban was adopted, The Seattle Times reports. The money went toward funding student clubs, publications, athletic uniforms and social events -- some of which had to be canceled or cost students more out of pocket to hold or keep.

The ban also hasn't kept some students from eating unhealthily, as some students simply go off campus to find their treats.

"If we can go five minutes and get candy and stuff, it's not like they're preventing us from having it, they're just making it slightly harder to obtain," student Alex Franke told NBC's TODAY.

This student behavior supports existing research on junk food in schools. Research published in November revealed that just banning soda from schools doesn't actually curb student consumption of sugary drinks. Across all states, whether they have no policy, ban sodas or ban all sugary drinks, students' out-of-school access and purchasing behavior of those beverages was unchanged.

"Our study adds to a growing body of literature that suggests that to be effective, school-based policy interventions need to be comprehensive," the study's authors write in their report.

Parents are divided on the issue in Seattle, as some argue the need for students to have every opportunity to access healthy food, others would rather their child eat a candy bar than nothing.

"The question is did we go too far?" Michael DeBell, Seattle School Board president, told MSNBC. "If the students aren’t finding the offerings to their liking, then we're not really meeting that goal of having them choose healthier foods."

But that also doesn't mean Seattle schools will be reintroducing Snickers bars and cans of Coke to the machines. Schools across the country are by 2013 required to comply with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which will mandate federal nutrition standards for healthy foods in schools.

"I think there's a middle ground," DeBell told The Seattle Times. "I'd much rather see students buy reasonably healthy products in vending machines than junk food off campus."

That middle ground may mean introducing items like Vitamin Water, hummus and granola bars with a little bit of chocolate, George Lewis reports on TODAY. A proposal could be presented by the spring and take effect as early as next fall.

In a biting piece in The New York Times last week, investigative reporter Lucy Komisar offered an in-depth look at how the food industry -- and its complex web of internal alliances -- is taking over school meals.

The New York Times report also reveals the trials faced by figures like First Lady Michelle Obama and chef and media personality Jamie Oliver, who actively work to fight childhood obesity by promoting healthy school lunches and nutritional education. Those efforts are further thwarted by lenient regulations, as Congress supported the final version of a spending bill Nov. 17 that would allow tomato paste on pizzas to continue to be counted as a vegetable and blocks efforts to limit the use of potatoes in school cafeterias.

On Jimmy Kimmel Live last month, Oliver declared that "the food companies of America own you," adding that "These moron frozen food companies -- pizza industry, french-fry industry -- have basically bought, bribed, bullied Congress, who have completely let everyone down, into basically making it okay to feed [students] french fries every day."

The Nov. 17 move by Congress was seen as a victory for those food manufacturers. American Frozen Food Institute spokesperson Corey Henry told Reuters that the overturned standards would have forced food producers to "change their products in a way that would make them unpalatable to students."

Still, some schools -- like several in California -- have taken the matter into their own hands, and have found ways to profit from those efforts. Umpteen school districts have taken part in a decade-long initiative, supported by a philanthropic organization, that provides schools with equipments and chefs who teach cafeteria workers to cook from scratch and produce fresh meals.

A report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month revealed that more than a third of high school students were eating vegetables less than once a day -- "considerably below" recommended levels of intake for a healthy lifestyle that supports weight management and could reduce risks for chronic diseases and some cancers.

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