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School Vending Rated as Junk

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The battle over what kinds of foods should be sold in school vending machines is heating up again with the release of two surveys on Tuesday.

A Gallup survey finds that many teens acknowledge eating ''a great deal or some junk food in a typical week,'' and they say they buy ''junk food and soda'' from vending machines at school.

A survey from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a Washington-based consumer group, found that the vending machines in middle and high schools are filled with candy, cookies, chips, soft drinks and other sugary beverages, and very few fruits or healthy snacks.

This latest news may confirm the obvious to some, but it comes at a time when about 20% to 30% of children are overweight or at risk of becoming so. Some schools and entire school districts have revamped what's sold in vending machines in an effort to offer foods that are considered healthier.

In the meantime, the national Gallup Youth Survey of 785 respondents, ages 13 to 17, found:

* 23% say they eat ''a great deal'' of junk food (defined as food that is convenient but isn't considered healthy) in a typical week; 61% say they eat some; 14% eat hardly any; 2% eat none.

* 67% say they buy junk food or soda from vending machines at school.

* 75% of the teens who describe themselves as overweight say they buy junk food or soda at school, compared with 65% of those who feel that they are about right or underweight.

For the CSPI study, 120 volunteers examined the contents of 1,420 vending machines at 251 schools in 24 states, a total of 13,650 slots for food and drinks. The schools were in both urban and rural regions and represented different socioeconomic areas, but the survey was not nationally representative.

They found:

* Of the drinks available, 70% are sugary drinks such as soda, juice drinks with less than 50% juice, iced tea and sports drinks. Of the sodas, 14% are diet. Water accounts for 12%; milk for 5% (mostly high-fat whole milk or 2%).

* Of the snack foods sold, 42% are candy; 25%, chips; 13%, cookies, snack cakes and pastries.

* A few healthier choices are available: low-fat chips and pretzels (5%); crackers or Chex Mix (3%); granola and cereal bars (2%); low-fat cookies and baked goods (2%); nuts and trail mix (1%); fruits and vegetables, less than .5%

''At a time when obesity is front-page news, I can't believe that we haven't done more as a country to ensure that all the choices available in schools are healthy,'' says CSPI's Margo Wootan.

CSPI is calling for strategies from federal and state governments and school districts to make sure healthy foods are sold in vending machines, in school stores or for fundraising.

Stephanie Childs of the Grocery Manufacturers of America, a trade group representing brand-name companies, says, ''Eliminating choices will not eliminate obesity, but expanding choices and nutrition education will help students understand how all foods can fit into the diet responsibly.''

The National Soft Drink Association says independent food consumption data indicate that only 20% of kids buy beverages during the week from school vending machines. Those kids consume about 12.5 ounces a week from soft drinks, the group says.

''You are looking at 140 to 150 calories a week, and that's not going to do anything to meaningfully address the childhood obesity issue,'' says Kathleen Dezio of the soft drink association.

''Soft drink companies offer the schools a variety of beverages, including water, juice, juice drinks, sports drinks, regular soft drinks and diet soft drinks, and parents and local school administrators, not CSPI or the government, should determine the product mix that is appropriate for their students,'' she says.

On a national level, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has introduced a bill that would give the Department of Agriculture authority to regulate food sales throughout the school, not just the lunchroom. For schools that worry they might lose money from reduced sales, the bill offers incentive grants to those that offer healthier choices.

Some state lawmakers have proposed bills to put restrictions on the kinds of foods and drinks sold in schools. California passed a law limiting the sale of soft drinks in elementary and middle schools.

The Los Angeles Unified School District eliminated the sale of soft drinks in all schools in January. In July, additional restrictions go into effect on the sale of high-fat, high-sugar foods in vending machines, school stores and a la carte cafeteria lines.

Two years ago, Venice (Calif.) High School switched to healthier fare such as baked chips, trail mix, fruit and cereal bars, water, 100% juice and organic soy milk. ''This is the right thing to do,'' says Jacqueline Domac, a health teacher who was instrumental in the changes. ''If a student is eating well, they're going to perform well academically.''

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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