...CSPI wants to grant the USDA complete regulatory authority over all food served in America’s schools, regardless of location or time of day. Policing the Food Police

This week, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) unveiled the results of its latest "study." CSPI was horrified to learn that a large percentage of food products sold in school vending machines are sodas, chips and candy. And, in a shocking disclosure that seemed straight from a Dave Barry column, the group also revealed that these products are not nutritious.

Sound like a sneering appraisal of their work? It is. But given that CSPI has dubbed itself the "food police" and anointed itself America’s dietary overseer and nutritional nanny, the sneer is more than fair.

With that background, it’s not surprising that CSPI used its new "study" to promote its political agenda. First, CSPI wants to grant the USDA complete regulatory authority over all food served in America’s schools, regardless of location or time of day. Second, CSPI wants the federal government to find a way to replace current vending machine offerings with more "healthy" choices either by paying off school districts with federal money or compelling schools’ compliance by federal mandate.

Like so many other do-gooder causes, the idea of forcing our children to eat nutritious foods sounds great on its face. If kids eat more apples and cauliflower instead of chips and candy, they’re bound to be thinner, happier, smarter, more willing to mow lawns and thrilled to walk early morning paper routes. But on an array of practical levels, CSPI’s proposal for a massive new federal mandate that interferes with local, parental and student decision-making collapses under its own weight. Most important, CSPI’s proposal falls short because its steps will fail to impact childhood obesity.

Like it or not, in this time of tight school budgets, vending machine sales provide an important component of school funding. CSPI retorts that the actual dollar figures represent a relatively small portion of total budgets. That’s true, but vending machine proceeds are usually paid directly to schools where principals and teachers can use them to pay for activities that often get shorted in the official budget.

For example, proceeds frequently pay for sports and arts activities like band, theater, sports teams and tournament trips. They are also often invested in specialized activities like model legislature, model U.N., class trips and the like. Without this important flexible funding, too many of these programs would suffer, and students would miss out on important extra-curricular opportunities. (And note the irony: CSPI’s plan would reduce funding for programs, like sports, that help kids stay fit.)

Recognizing this quandary, CSPI says schools that have switched vending machines to more healthy products have seen no drop-off in vending machine profits, but admits that no comprehensive, scientific study has been undertaken. Basic economics undermines their assertion: if schools could make the same amount of money, while helping kids, flocks of them would have already switched their soda machines to juice bars.

More broadly, CSPI’s proposition that the federal government should completely regulate all foods at every school in America constitutes a new and unparalleled intrusion into choices that ought to rest with local schools, parents and the students, themselves. Remember that dusty, old concept of federalism, on which the county was founded, and now conveniently forgotten?

By advocating broad new government regulation, CSPI and its congressional allies have once again hopped on the "we know what’s best for your children" bandwagon and made clear their belief that schools, parents and students cannot be trusted to make their own decisions about what to eat and drink.

These decisions ought to be left to students and their parents, with local administrations deciding what products, if any, they want to make available on their grounds. That’s not to say that local school districts don’t have an important role to play. Schools can and should educate students about how to make smart choices. They can and should be teaching children to enjoy foods in moderation and integrate exercise into their daily routines.

Finally, other data suggests that CSPI’s nanny-style proposals will do little or nothing to address childhood obesity. According to market researcher NFO WorldGroup, only 20 percent of secondary school students consume any beverages from school vending machines. And among those who do, the average intake of regular, carbonated soft drinks was slightly more than one can per week. So, assume that CSPI gets it way and the federal government effectively bans sodas and candy from school vending machines. The action will yield no meaningful reduction in caloric, fat, or sugar intake for the average student. Mandatory adherence to the South Beach diet would arguably accomplish far more, but no one is advocating that.

There’s one other simple truth worth noting: if students want soft drinks and candy, they don’t need vending machines to get them. From the dawn of time, kids have been slipping off to the candy store, drug store, mall or other appropriate vendor to procure their favorite treat. No doubt many parents would let their kids bring a soda and a dessert to school if they couldn’t be had from a vending machine.

The bottom line: the food police are at it again, trying to tell us and our children precisely what they should eat and when they should eat it. But their proposal for federal intervention harms local schools and students and fails to achieve its stated goal. Moreover, it limits personal choice.

It makes one wonder: who’s going to police the food police?

May 13, 2004
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