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School Junk Food Debate Intensifies

New York Times
May 20, 2002
In Bid to Improve Nutrition, Schools Expel Soda and Chips

OAKLAND, Calif., May 16 ‹ It is lunchtime at Fremont High, in one of the
largest school districts in the nation to enact a systemwide ban on junk
food. The cafeteria is offering a mystery meat wrapped in a tortilla, with
fruit on the side, but it is no draw for Nicole Talbott, a student who is
headed across the street to a small market.

"Lunch for me is chips, soda, maybe a chocolate ice cream taco," Ms. Talbott
said. "Every day, just about the same thing." As for the warnings about an
epidemic of obesity and the dangers of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and
sleep apnea, she shrugs. "That's all I like to eat ‹ the bad stuff."

In the last few months, the lines have sharpened in what may prove to be a
culture war for the new century. The battlefield is the American diet,
particularly that of the nation's teenagers.

The two biggest states, Texas and California, are moving toward phasing out
junk food in schools, as are many school districts in other states. Lawyers
who pioneered suits against tobacco companies have set their sights on what
they call Big Food as the next target. Class-action lawsuits have been filed
in New York and Florida contending that processed foods with little
nutritional value have misled consumers. The lawyers filing these suits hope
to do to Mega Gulps and Twinkies what they did to Joe Camel and tobacco.

This week Congress took up legislation, the Obesity Prevention and Treatment
Act, that would start a campaign to improve the eating habits in the nation,
where more than 60 percent of adults are overweight.

The food industry and its lobbyists have started fighting back, running
radio advertisements that criticize "food nags" as trying to take away
choice. Sloth, not junk food, is behind the threefold increase in the number
of overweight children in the last 30 years, say spokesmen for some of the
biggest food and soft drink companies.

But as lawyers and nutritionists gather their forces for a larger battle,
schools are learning that junk food bans may be easier to enact than to

That is the experience in Oakland, which in February banished soda, candy,
caffeinated drinks and other products from schools in the 52,000-student
district. The district food service manager, Amy Lins, says students are now
eating things like soy-based burgers, salads and grilled chicken and
drinking fruit juices.

"But more kids may be sneaking off to get their junk food off campus," Ms.
Lins said.

At Fremont, students run a thriving business selling nutritious food made by
local merchants. But hundreds of students go to the local Burger King for
fries and the corner market for cookies, sodas and chips. About an hour
after the students return, teachers say, they will crash in a daze as the
sugar high wears off.

"You can chart it," Michael Moore, a deputy principal, said. "They say these
foods keep them awake. To the contrary, it ends up putting them asleep in
the afternoon."

Some students are happy to eat the old food and the new food. Rosie Russo, a
junior, says she likes the nutritious food. But on days when the student-run
food carts sell out of food, she says she has no choice. So, for lunch she
is eating a huge bag of flavored popcorn. But she points out that she is
also drinking lemonade from one of the new machines that have been installed
next to a lifeless soft drink machine.

Others are less receptive. "First they take away our privacy; now they take
away our food choice," Angelina Garcia said.

In Texas, rules that take effect next school year will ban the sale of soft
drinks, candy and other products of low nutritional value near school
cafeterias. Critics say the ban will not stop students from buying candy and
soda from the vending machines elsewhere in the schools. But Texas educators
say that nearly 800,000 students in the state are overweight and that
schools should not contribute to the problem.

These bans and similar proposals have exposed the passion of people for
chips and sugared drinks. When State Senator Deborah Ortiz of California
proposed a bill last month for a two-cent tax on every soda, complaints
flooded her office. Some were orchestrated by a conservative talk radio
station, but others came from teenagers and their parents.

Ms. Ortiz, a Democrat, says there is a strong link between heavy soft drink
consumption and recent findings in a survey that 30 percent of California
students are overweight, 77 percent are out of shape, and 98 percent have
diets that fall short of national nutritional standards.

"These food companies have a unique situation of having a captive audience,"
Ms. Ortiz said. "And what they're selling is something so devoid of
nutritional value that you can't even call it a food product."

She has since changed the bill, dropping the soda tax in favor of phasing
out junk food in schools. The bill faces an uphill fight, as the food
industry, which spends $30 billion a year to promote its products, argues
that it is being unfairly singled out for a societal ill.

"Hell, I've eaten more cheeseburgers than you can count," said John Doyle, a
spokesman for the Center for Consumer Freedom, the food industry group
leading the fight against the lawsuits and the bans on junk food. "I love
cheeseburgers. I feed them to my kids three times a week, and everybody is
perfectly healthy. This is food we're talking about. Used in moderation, it
can help you stay alive."

Mr. Doyle said the Oakland junk food ban was the most extreme in the nation
and would not help children eat more healthful food.

"They can eliminate everything they want, and it will not do one thing to
curb obesity," he said. "You cannot mandate fat away."

In some cases, the food industry is joined by school administrators
themselves. Many schools depend on income from the sale of snack food.
Nationwide, schools get $750 million a year from companies that sell snack
or processed food in schools, an industry study found.

The Oakland school district will lose about $650,000, and the individual
schools will lose $200,000 from various deals.

"We have yet to figure out how we're going to make up that lost money," said
Ken Epstein, a spokesman for the district.

The paradox, school officials say, is that money from food that can fatten
students is used on activities to keep them healthy, including camping trips
and sports.

"Should schools be co-conspirators in promoting unhealthy diets?" asked
Steve O'Donoghue, a teacher at Fremont. "Even if we can't change a single
kid's behavior, the message we send by having all these deals with junk food
peddlers is that this stuff is O.K."

The courts may be the next battleground. Although lawsuits attacking junk
food do not say a specific food is responsible for obesity, they say food
companies are liable for some health risks because of mislabeling. One
class-action suit, filed in New York last month, accused the company that
makes Pirate's Booty popcorn of mislabeling. The popcorn was recalled after
an independent group found that it had far more fat than the label

McDonalds recently settled a class-action lawsuit for $10 million. The
company had not informed people that its french fries were cooked in oil
that contained beef extract.

"These suits are the harbingers," said John F. Banzhaf, a professor of law
at George Washington University and the director of an antismoking
organization that pioneered lawsuits against tobacco companies. "You may not
be able to prove that somebody got fat because of a particular product, but
you can prove that the companies may have misrepresented, by omission, what
is in their foods."

With the Internal Revenue Service recognizing obesity as an illness and a
recent surgeon general's report warning that obesity has reached epidemic
levels, the stage is set to declare foods that contribute to the problem a
threat, Mr. Banzhaf said.

"You could have states saying that they have this billion-dollar public
health problem, and food companies are responsible for a certain percentage
of it," he said. "It's a reach, I admit. But they said the same thing about
tobacco lawsuits 10 years ago."

The food industry ridicules such talk. "A soft drink or an ice cream cone is
not dangerous," Mr. Doyle said. "That's where these trial lawyers are wrong.
It's not the food, it's the lifestyle that is to blame."

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