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Editorial: Get tougher on junk food in schools

A student purchases a brown sugar Pop-Tart from

A student purchases a brown sugar Pop-Tart from a vending machine in the hallway outside the school cafeteria, in Wichita, Kan. Photo Credit: AP, 2006

Is there really anybody out there who thinks schools should be selling junk food to kids?

The answer, apparently, is yes, because proposed bans often generate controversy. School districts and junk food vendors both profit by selling sodas, cakes, potato chips and the like, and often oppose restrictions by arguing that kids will only buy the stuff elsewhere.

Now comes the first large national study of state laws on junk food, released online Monday by the medical journal Pediatrics. The results? Students living in states with strong, consistent laws curbing school junk food gained less weight over a three-year span than students in more lax states.

The findings will provide ammunition for barring junk food from schools, even if the argument for doing so should need no bolstering. New York already has a law on this, but it bars junk only up until after the day's last meal period -- and in some places, junk food sales have been found going on all day. At the very least, New York needs strict enforcement of the law we have. Better still, let's ban unhealthy snacks and drinks at school all day long.

Opponents of such bans have cited past junk food studies showing mixed results, but those studies usually have been smaller and depended on self-reported weight, which makes them less reliable. The latest effort, led by Daniel Taber of the University of Illinois-Chicago, overcomes those limitations by using data on 6,300 kids in 40 states. Student heights and weights were from actual measurements.

To classify state laws on school junk food, which is the unhealthy stuff served outside school meals, Taber and his colleagues drew on a system used by the National Cancer Institute to characterize the laws as strong, weak or non-existent. Laws were considered strong if they were specific -- barring soda, for example. Weak laws might only offer recommendations, or use vague words such as "healthy."

The student data included "body mass index," which relates weight to height. Students who spent all three years -- from 2004 to 2007 -- in strong-law states gained .44 fewer BMI points than kids in no-law states. For a 5-foot child weighing 100 pounds, that's about 2.2 pounds. The study also found that weak laws weren't much better than no law.

The new study doesn't prove tough limits on junk food in school will make kids slimmer. But it certainly is suggestive. And it's hard to see how it can hurt to rid campuses of sugary soft drinks and snack foods stuffed with empty calories. Their removal will underscore an important message: This stuff isn't good for you.

The Taber study notes that nearly one in five Americans ages 12 to 19 are obese, a condition that predisposes them to lifelong health problems. Yet the U.S. Department of Agriculture has delayed by months a plan to propose national standards on junk food in schools (what a short memo this ought to be!). And last year a USDA plan to require healthier school lunches was defunded by Congress.

On the other hand, public and private schools don't need a law to get junk food out of their facilities. It might cost a little revenue at a time when funding is tight. But surely there are better ways to raise money than selling unhealthy products to children on school premises.

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