The state Senate approved a bill today that bans the sale of junk food and sugary drinks in school vending machines and school stores.
Senators, who backed the measure in a unanimous vote, said they were motivated to act following a series of reports revealing the magnitude of the childhood obesity problem. One in three schoolchildren in Massachusetts were overweight or obese in 2008, up from one in four two years earlier, according to a report by the Massachusetts Health Council, a nonprofit nonpartisan advocacy group.
"Families in this Commonwealth deserve that their children be offered food that is healthy, wholesome, and safe,'' said Senator Susan Fargo of Waltham.
Members today also approved an amendment to the bill that stresses the importance of school physical education programs. Senator Thomas McGee of Lynn said less than 57 percent of schools in the state provide PE programs.
The legislation, which will have to be reconciled with a version of the bill previously passed by the House, is the latest push by the state to combat childhood obesity, a top priority of Governor Deval Patrick.
Public schools, complying with a new public health mandate, began measuring and weighing first-, fourth-, seventh- and 10th-graders last fall so they can calculate their body mass index, a standard measurement used to analyze if someone weighs too much or too little.
President Obama also is urging Congress, as it overhauls the Childhood Nutrition Act, to set nutritional standards for food and beverage items sold outside of lunch and breakfast programs.
Many Massachusetts school districts, such as Boston, Cohasset, and Lawrence, have taken the lead in replacing junk food in vending machines with more nutritional offerings, such as pretzels, rice cakes and soy nuts. The movement had prompted some education groups to question the need for a state law.
But public health experts, many school food service directors, and some legislators say the state needed to step in to ensure the consistency of nutritional standards from one school to another and to force those schools that have been lax to shape up.
"All we are asking schools to do is replace foods with high fat and sugar with healthier varieties," Susan Servais, executive director Massachusetts Health Council, said earlier this week. "We know that poor nutrition really reduces a studentís ability to learn."
The measure establishes nutritional standards for items available at vending machines, school stores, and snack bars during school hours, and it essentially bans the sale of soda, candy bars, fried chips, and even sports drinks, which health officials say can sometimes have more sugar than their carbonated counter parts.
The bill calls for selling nonfat and low-fat dairy products, non-fried fruits and non-fried vegetables, whole grains and related products, and beverages without additives or carbonation, non-sweetened water, and 100 percent fruit juices.
To build consensus for the bill, the nutritional standards would not apply to food-based fund-raisers, such as bake sales and concession stands, that are used to reduce or ward off fees for extra-curricular activities.
The restrictions also would not apply to breakfast and lunch programs, which are overseen by the US Department of Agriculture.
Other components of the bill include encouraging schools to sell fruits and vegetables from local farmers, training school staff more effectively to detect eating disorders, and establishing a commission to combat childhood obesity.
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