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Long Island schools facing Obama junk food ban?

Students get drinks from vending machines at Huntington

Students get drinks from vending machines at Huntington Middle School. (Jan. 24, 2008) Photo Credit: Newsday/Karen Wiles Stabile

Obese kids (and skinny ones, too) all over Long Island may soon be saying goodbye to all their favorite junk food, from Coke and Pepsi to Snickers, Skittles and French fries -- at least during school hours.

In a move that's sure to spark a strong reaction from Long Island parents and students, the Obama administration is reportedly looking to push junk food out of school vending machines and cafeterias across the nation.

Today's New York Times said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack had planned to say, in an address to the National Press Club later Monday, that school vending machines be "filled with nutritious offerings to make the healthy choice the easy choice for our nation's children."

[The speech has been canceled along with most other activities in Washington, D.C. today, as the city digs out from "Snowmageddon"].

The speech was reportedly the prelude to proposed legislation that, if approved, would ban candy, sugary beverages and fatty foods from school cafeterias.

Now, the Garden Detective is all in favor of healthy, preferably homegrown food, and applauds any effort to get kids hooked on the good stuff early. But while this appears to be a major step in the right direction, Long Islanders are sure to be split over whether it's the federal government's place to legislate decisions that traditionally have been made on the local level by individual school boards.

In October, West Babylon schools banned home-baked goods under a wellness policy that dictated all snack foods would have to meet nutrition guidelines set by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation or the New York State Nutrition Association's Choose Sensibly guidelines. Parents protested vehemently, mourning the loss of the birthday cupcake.

Melissa Clark, parent of a kindergartner there, said at the time, "It's not that I am against healthy choices [but] I don't see how taking away a cupcake for a birthday . . . really helps our kids. I think it is a little over the top."

The current proposed bill would exempt school parties and bake sales, according to the Times report, but knowing where to draw the line can be sticky.

And even if healthy foods are served exclusively in schools, what happens when the bell rings at 3:00?

Maybe that's where the first lady's campaign would take over.

It's no secret that Michelle Obama is passionate about nutrition, and the Times story makes the connection between her efforts and the proposed legislation.

Before moving into the White House, the first lady says, she and her husband worked long hours and very often did the grab-and-go dinner thing with their kids, sacrificing nutrition in favor of convenience. In other words, she was just like the rest of us.

But when her husband took office little more than a year ago, Mrs. Obama took on the cause of healthy eating and fighting obesity, particularly in children.  Most notably by planting the White House kitchen garden on the South Lawn last spring, as this blog has noted

This week, she's launching a campaign against childhood obesity that aims to get the cooperation of parents, schools, businesses, nonprofit groups, health professionals and governments to promote healthier schools, more physical activity for kids, improved access to healthy foods and more readily available nutrition information.

It's ambitious, to say the least. But just as Nancy Reagan's 1982 "Just Say No" campaign radically increased public awareness of teenage drug use -- with some statistics stating that marijuana use among high school seniors dropped from roughly 50% in 1978 to 12% in 1991 -- Mrs. Obama's campaign holds promise.

The only question, then, is whether it's better for the push for healthier kids to come from the first lady's efforts and those of parents -- or whether we need another major piece of federal legislation.

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PHOTOS: What do LI kids eat for lunch anyway?

VOTE: Should the government ban junk food from schools?

MORE: The state of school lunches on Long Island

FROM NEWSDAY: Feds' bill would nix junk food from LI schools

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