WASHINGTON -- Candy, soda, pizza, and other snacks compete with nutritious meals in 9 out of 10 schools, a government survey found.
Already plentiful in high schools, junk food has become more available in middle schools over the past five years, according to the Government Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress.
''Parents should know that our schools are now one of the largest sources of unhealthy food for their kids," Senator Tom Harkin, who asked for the study, said in an interview.
''Would anyone advocate that we take the fences off the playground for elementary schools and just let kids run around in the streets?" Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, said. ''By the same token, why would we allow schools to sort of poison our kids with junk food?"
Obesity among children and teenagers more than doubled in the past three decades, according to the government-chartered Institute of Medicine. Obese children will become adults with chronic health problems, said Harkin, the senior Democrat on the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee.
He and other lawmakers want the government to set nutrition standards for food throughout schools and not just in the cafeteria.
Giving children healthier options ''should not be a suggestion, it should be a requirement," said Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat on the committee. At issue are so-called competitive foods -- snacks such as candy, soda, pizza, and popcorn available in a la carte lines in cafeterias, in vending machines, and in school stores.
Apples and milk are also competitive foods, but the GAO said candy and other junk food crowds out healthier stuff in vending machines and school stores. Competitive foods are largely unregulated.