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Cafeterias Improving But Vending Machines a Problem, Group Says

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WASHINGTON - School cafeteria meals are improving in nutritional value, but kids still are eating too much junk food from school vending machines, snack bars and other outlets, a Washington nutrition group said Monday.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest wants parents to inventory the offerings in their kids' school vending machines, then press school administrators and local officials to replace the soft drinks and candy bars with fruit juices and granola bars.

Students know what's good for them, and often get the lesson underlined in classes on nutrition, said Margo Wootan, the director of nutrition policy for CSPI. But when the lunch bell rings, they head for machines filled with fare that's high in fat, calories and salt.

"It sends children the wrong message to teach one thing in the classroom and practice something else in the hallway," Wootan said. "It sends them the message that nutrition is not important."

Her group on Monday offered a list of "Better and Worst Snacks" for school vending machines. Panned are Chips Ahoy!, Coca-Cola, Keebler Club & Cheddar Sandwich crackers, whole milk and "fruit drinks" such as Fruitopia that are high in sugar and low in fruit. Praised are unsweetened applesauce cups, Nature Valley Crunchy Granola Bars, Dole or Del Monte fruit cups, raisins and bottled water, among others.

CSPI wants vending machines to be chock-full of healthy alternatives.

Representatives of the food vending industry - and a past president of the American Dietetic Association - agreed that students need better nutrition, but said CSPI was going too far.

"You can take every vending machine out of schools, and I don't believe you'd touch the obesity issue in children," said Dr. Susan Finn, the chairwoman of the American Council for Fitness and Nutrition and a former ADA head.

She was alluding to recent studies reporting that only 2 percent of U.S. children eat a healthy diet as the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines it. In addition, obesity rates have doubled in American children and tripled in teens over the last two decades. One reason: a reported 30 percent increase between 1977 and 1996 in calories from kids' snacks.

To address the problem, Finn favors teaching children proper eating habits at home and adding more time for nutrition and physical education at school.

"Kids and their parents need to understand the importance of calories and nutrition," she said. "Banning, restricting and taxing isn't going to matter one bit."

The National Automatic Merchandising Association took much the same view.

"We're parents, too, "said Jackie Clark, a spokeswoman for the association. "We're as interested in solving this problem as anyone. We think it has more to do with offering healthy choices. It's important to make sure children understand how to make nutritional choices, and encourage physical fitness."

Under federal law, cafeterias must meet nutritional requirements set by the USDA, and even Wootan said they were doing better. In addition, vending machines selling snacks and sodas can't be in school cafeterias, unless they're inoperable while meals are served. They can be just outside the cafeteria, however.

According to CSPI, 98 percent of U.S. senior high schools, 75 percent of middle and junior high schools, and 40 percent of elementary schools have vending machines, snack bars or school stores that sell food.

Wootan said she had nothing against vending machines, but rather what they sold.

"Ideally, every slot in vending machines should be devoted to healthy foods and drinks," she said. "They're not."

Wootan wants to "stack the deck" in vending machines with healthy options for children.

Sean McBride, the director of communications for the National Soft Drink Association, disagreed.

"A restrictive food policy will not solve the obesity problem," he said. "If you learn how to lead a healthy lifestyle, there are room for things like soft drinks and snacks."


The Center for Science in the Public Interest offers its new "School Foods Tool Kit" on its Web site,


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

(C) 2003 Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.. All Rights Reserved

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