Meg Ormiston’s 10-year-old son Patrick is lucky. His school doesn’t participate in the National School Lunch program. That means his mom can keep signing him up for the Cozi Corner hot dog lunches and Dippin’ Dots Days at his District 63 school in Darien. The program rewards kids with ice cream for four weeks of hard work.
But, for students in districts that participate in the National School Lunch program, their Dippin’ Dots and hot dog days may be numbered. If the Illinois State School Board votes this month to change the rules for junk food in schools, sales during any part of the school day would be banned.
"That may be taking it a step too far," Ormiston says. "It’s a four-ounce package; it’s not this huge amount. And it’s a parent’s choice."
Junk food sales already are banned during breakfast and lunch at schools that participate in the School Breakfast Program or the National School Lunch Program—unless the sales meet certain nutrional standards, such as a hot dog with fruit rather than fries.
Gov. Rod Blagojevich has proposed extending that ban to help combat childhood obesity and emphasize the importance of nutrition.
"A child is still going to want a hot dog or a piece of pizza at a sporting event," says State Board Chairman Jesse Ruiz. "The focus is on the school day. We want kids to be at their peak."
Redefining junk food
State officials aren’t the only ones watching children’s waistlines. The advocacy groups Center for Science and the Public Interest and Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood recently joined Massachusetts parents to file suit against Viacom and Kellogg for marketing junk food to young children.
But what is junk food, exactly? Are Pop-Tarts? What about "baked" Doritos?
The governor’s proposal calls for a new definition of "minimally nutritious food" that focuses more on calories and fat content. The definition will be based on U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines and feedback from health organizations and local school districts.
"We think it’s definitely the right approach," says Elliot Regenstein, Blagojevich’s director of school reform. "Look at what’s on the back of the package, not the front."
Terry Christenson, health chairwoman of the Illinois PTA, says the new definition could be problematic and difficult to enforce. "I think it would be very impossible to go through everything, but it’s a good start," she says.
Under the new restrictions, banned food would include any items sold in vending machines or as part of fund-raising events. That could spell trouble for parent-teacher associations which still generate considerable dollars from bake sales, Christenson notes. But the organization already has been encouraging members to move to healthier fund-raisers. Its Healthy Lifestyles campaign suggests walk-a-thons and other healthier fund-raising events in place of bake sales.
"We don’t have to reward kids with food, or if it’s food, it can be healthier food," Christenson says.
New rules loom
Regenstein says organizations still would be able to sell food after school or during extracurricular functions such as school plays and sports games.
And the ban applies only to food that is sold. Teachers still would be allowed to reward good student performance with a Jolly Rancher candy, and parents can pack their children’s lunches with anything from carrots to Cheetos.
Regardless of whether they’re subject to the ban, some schools already push healthy snacks. In Ormiston’s district, parents pack morning snacks for their children, but the district strongly suggests they stick to a bottle of water and food that doesn’t include sugar.
The Illinois Legislature has considered more than five bills to restrict junk food sales in the last two years. But none has passed.
School administrators have complained they need the revenue generated by the beverage and food vending machine contracts.
But financial strains aren’t the problem for schools like those in Arlington Heights District 25. They get a deal on food through the Northen Illinois Independent Purchasing Cooperative and don’t stock vending machines at grammar schools.
"Those are usually in the high schools," says Coletta Hine-Newell, director of food services for the district. Under the new definition of junk food, Hine-Newell would no longer be able to sell water with Splenda to her diabetic students, or large, 16-ounce milk cartons to anyone.
Ruiz expects the board to approve the proposal this month.
"Frankly, as a parent of a young son who’s starting to develop these habits, I think it’s a good thing," he says. "We’ll make it as practical as possible."
The Illinois State Board of Education is proposing a new definition of junk food that would be based on calories and sugar content rather than food categories.
Board Chairman Jesse Ruiz says the change would bring back foods such as chips made out of fruit, which are banned under the current definition. Under the current definition, junk food includes prepackaged food that includes confections, candy and potato chips and carbonated beverages, fruit drinks containing less than 50 percent pure fruit juice, tea and coffee.
Under the proposed state board changes, junk food would include food that:
• Derives more than 35 percent of its calories from fat or more than 10 percent from saturated fat.
• Gets more than 35 percent of its weight from sugar, excluding nuts, seeds, nut butters, fruits and vegetables.
• Contains more than 200 calories in an individual package. The extended ban also would include PTA-sponsored meals and food sales during the school day.
The only beverages allowed would be flavored or plain reduced-fat (2 percent), low-fat (1 percent) or nonfat milk, 100 percent fruit and vegetable juices and water.
The Chicago Public Schools, which already has a more restrictive definition, defines junk food as a snack that:
• Derives more than 30 percent of its calories from fat or more than 10 percent of its calories from saturated fat, excluding fruits and vegetables.
• Gets more than 40 percent of its weight from sugar.
• Contains more than 480 milligrams of sodium.
• Provides less than 5 percent of the daily value of iron, calcium, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, niacin, thiamine or riboflavin.
Megan Waitkoff is a student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. She wrote this story for the Medill News Service.