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Expel junk food from our schools

Snacks sold via vending machines at McLean High

Snacks sold via vending machines at McLean High School in McLean, Va. (Dec. 15, 2005) Credit: Getty Images

Public schools shouldn't make money selling wildly unhealthy foods to their students, but they often do, via vending machine contracts and items sold in the cafeteria outside the "meal plan." That could begin to change when new U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines are issued this spring, but the politics of school nutrition are always contentious, and even the wisest improvements are never a slam dunk.

A study published this month in the journal Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine states that more than half of all elementary school students still have access to candy, chips, sugary sodas and fatty baked goods via "competitive food," so called because it is in competition with regular meal programs. Many elementary schools have vending machines stocked with the stuff, and experts say the prevalence of these snacks is even worse in middle and high schools.

New York has no statewide policy, so practices differ by district, and often don't serve the best interests of the kids. Many school cafeterias also sell items a la carte that aren't healthy at all.

This fall new USDA regulations on school lunches were defeated by the lobbying of companies that provide that food. The rules would have cut in half the amount of sodium allowed, reduced the amount of starchy potatoes served, and altered the way schools receive credit for serving vegetables by, for instance, no longer counting a few tablespoons of tomato sauce on a slice of pizza.

Congress blocked the USDA from using federal money to carry out the proposed rules after lobbyists applied pressure.

Now the USDA is after candy, potato chips and sodas. The plan is to release sane, enforceable guidelines this spring.

This isn't a "nanny state" issue. No one is saying parents can't send kids to school with whatever they want in their lunch boxes.

But with the childhood obesity and diabetes crises we're seeing, there's no reason for schools to be tempting kids with sugary sodas and fatty snacks, and certainly no call for schools to be profiting from such sales.