Soda, chips and other snack foods may soon disappear from cafeterias and vending machines in Connecticut schools if a new bill to subsidize healthy food in public schools passes the state legislature this spring.
The proposal, put forward by state Sen. Don Williams and backed by Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell, would be the first law in the country to ban all sales of soda — both regular and diet — and electrolyte-replacement drinks such as Gatorade in all public schools. The bill also proposes that the state increase subsidies to those schools that meet further nutritional guidelines such as revamping food offerings in cafeterias and offering wellness and exercise programs to all students, according to a press release from Williams’ office.
Should the bill pass, the new requirements would most likely not alter the current food-service programs in New Haven public schools, said Luis Rodriguez, associate marketing specialist of the New Haven Public Schools Food Service Division. Rodriguez said city public schools have been junk-food-free for the past three to four years, banning unhealthy food and beverage options from all school cafeterias and vending machines. Because of these changes, Rodriguez said the city probably already qualifies for the proposed subsidy of 10 cents per lunch.
“It’ll be nice to have a little extra income to play around with packaging and improve cafeterias throughout the district,” he said.
School districts currently receive only a 5-cents-per-lunch subsidy from the state, and Rell spokesman John Wiltse said the 10-cent increase would help reimburse schools for potential losses due to ending sales of junk food.
The subsidy also provides a strong incentive for schools to offer exercise programs and wellness education, said Henry Garcia, a spokesman for the Connecticut State Department of Education. He said such programs should supplement healthier food offerings given the high level of childhood obesity in the state, which researchers at the University of Connecticut estimate at around 25 percent.
But Tom O’Donnell, general manager of the city public schools’ food service division, said the clinical impact of a healthy food initiative depends on consistent lifestyle changes that students make. Such changes, he said, involve more than simply eating healthier pizza for lunch.
“The fact that the junk food isn’t [in the schools] would lead you to believe that there would be a benefit — maybe not short-term, but maybe long-term,” he said. “But even so, there’s nothing preventing kids from bringing junk food from home.”
New Haven suffers from a childhood obesity rate that is 50 percent higher than the national average, according to the Web site of Connecticut’s Task Force to Reduce and Prevent Obesity in Children. O’Donnell said the influence of New Haven’s nutritional program on the health of its students has not yet been assessed in the city. But New Haven Public Schools Superintendent Reginald Mayo said the programs have been successful and popular, and he said he expects the new measures to have a positive impact on student health.
“People are gradually getting into more healthy food,” he said. “We’re trying to make our kids live longer.”
State Sen. John McKinney ’86, who voted against last year’s version of the bill, said the previous proposal failed to address the need to make school lunches more nutritional, focusing instead simply on banning regular soda products.
“The idea that we’re going to tell an 18-year-old that they can’t go buy a soda or a Gatorade at a vending machine in their high school before they go off to their practices is sort of silly,” he said.
Rell vetoed a similar bill to encourage healthy eating in schools last year. Wiltse said the governor opposed last year’s proposed legislation because it placed an unfunded mandate on the entire school system by requiring that schools introduce physical fitness programs and recess into the school day. Rell supports the new subsidy proposal, Wiltse said, because participation is voluntary.