Brownell testifies on school food

Kids may prefer the taste of Little Debbie and Gatorade to that of broccoli and orange juice, but nutritionists from around the country said Tuesday that they are more concerned with combating child obesity than pleasing kids’ taste buds.

Kelly Brownell, psychology professor and director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale, testified before Congress with several other nutritionists about the poor state of nutrition available to children in schools and the unhealthy use of schools as a commercial market. Also present was a spokesperson for several major soft drink companies, who argued that the industry is not exploiting schools and is making sufficient efforts to help child nutrition.

The hearing was on a proposed law requiring government regulation of snacks offered during school hours, Brownell said.

The legislation, The Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act, would provide for federal supervision of foods sold outside the school lunch program, such as vending machines, school stores and snack stands, Brownell said. Cutting down on the calorie and fat content of the snacks available at school could help reduce levels of obesity among children, he said.

“At present, there’s almost no regulation,” he said. “It’s an important issue for the problem of obesity because students spend so much time at school, and often the snacks are readily available all day.”

The problem of nutrition is not new, but the issues have changed over the years. In the past, Brownell said, schools worried about malnutrition and made efforts to increase the amount of food available to underprivileged children during school hours, such as providing breakfast and increasing lunch sizes.

But now, the problem has changed to one of overcompensation and overeating, he said. Students have access to a glut of high calorie, low-nutrition snacks and side items, such as potato chips, candy, ice cream and soft drinks.

Nurses from local elementary schools agreed that obesity at their schools is probably linked to the daily snack offerings.

Tania Bell, a nurse at the public John C. Daniels Elementary School in New Haven, said there is need for action either at the local or federal level. There is legitimate cause for concern regarding nutrition and weight management among her students, she said.

“We have an outstanding number of obese students,” she said. “Students definitely need healthier choices.”

But New Haven public schools are not among the worst offenders, some school officials and faculty said. Progressive efforts have been made in recent years to cut down on negative options, such as soft drinks and vending machines in some cases.

One faculty member from John C. Daniels said that while she advocates healthy eating, ultimately the decision should be the child’s. The school has less nutritious choices, she said, but it also has a snack stand with chips, baked snacks and juice drinks, and the lunch menu offers a daily choice of a garden salad. She said that efforts are being made to increase diet awareness among parents and children alike.

“The food service department sends home newsletters every month with tips on how to stay healthy and what to eat for a balanced diet,” she said.

The legislation is currently being reviewed by the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.

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