Kentucky Mulls Banning Junk-Food Sales in Schools

Legislation to get rid of junk food and limit soft drinks in Kentucky schools was approved by a House committee as health advocates renewed their quest to fill schoolhouse vending machines with healthy snacks.

Fried potato chips and candy bars would be off-limits if the bill becomes law. Instead, students could munch on granola bars (search), reduced-fat crackers or other healthy alternatives.

Also, elementary school students wouldn't be allowed to sip sodas during the school day. Students in middle and high schools could still get soft drinks, but vending machines would be stocked mainly with water, fruit juices and milk.

"We're not out to break the soft-drink companies," said Rep. Tom Burch (search), D-Louisville, a lead sponsor of the bill with Rep. Tim Feeley (search), R-Crestwood. "There's a place for those types of things, but I don't believe they're in the school."

The bill was approved by the Health and Welfare Committee with only one dissenting vote. Similar legislation has passed the House three times before but stalled in the Senate.

Supporters said the bill would teach a lesson about healthy choices that could save millions in health costs for treating obesity-related problems, including juvenile diabetes.

Health advocates said childhood obesity has reached epidemic proportion.

"We don't want fat, smart kids in ... Kentucky," said Dr. Gerald Sturgeon, a Louisville pediatrician and a former president of the Kentucky Pediatric Society (search). "We'll take them, but we'd much rather have healthy, smart kids."

To encourage students to exercise, the bill would allow elementary schools to offer up to 30 minutes of recess that would be considered part of the instructional day.

Registered dietitian Carolyn Dennis used some props to make her case for limiting soft drinks in the schools — including a bulging bag of sugar representing the amount of sugar consumed by someone who drinks a 20-ounce soft drink daily for a month.

She said some popular soft drinks contain 18 teaspoons of sugar per 20-ounce servings. It would take a one-hour workout on a bike to burn the calories, she said.

Supporters said $1 billion is spent each year in Kentucky to treat obesity-related medical problems, including $320 million by the Medicaid program.

The bill would forbid any snack items with more than 6 grams of fat or more than 40 percent sugar in schoolhouse vending machines or cafeteria a la carte lines.

In middle and high schools, at least 75 percent of vending machine drinks would have to be "healthy," meaning water, fruit juices or milk.

Rep. David Floyd (search), R-Bardstown, voted against the bill, saying those decisions should be left up to local school officials.

The bill's advocates said a few school districts have voluntarily limited the availability of soft drinks and junk food, but many others haven't.

"Nothing is more local control than my rights as a parent to have some control over what happens with that lunch money that I give my children when they go out the door in the morning," Dennis said.

Jordan Hall, 16, a junior at Pikeville High School, said in a phone interview that he used to buy a snack cake daily at school.

"I'm sure that didn't help any," said Hall, who weighed 290 pounds before going on the diet that allowed him to shed 135 pounds.

Hall said he sees other students pass up school lunches for snacks. He said banning unhealthy snacks at school would promote good health, but added that the vending machines are a source of extra revenue for schools.