Do fines for school junk food go too far?
The federal government requires most schools to dish out only nutritious fare for lunch in an attempt to keep kids healthy.
Many people agree that is a worthy goal. But some say the rules have gone too far.
This month, Kaysville's Davis High earned its second fine for selling foods such as diet soda and certain candies from the school store and vending machines in the hallway during lunch. Over the past few months, the school has been fined more than $16,000, said Chris Williams, Davis District spokesman. And in February, Box Elder High was fined $20,167 for selling diet carbonated drinks, lifesavers and cough drops during lunch in a hallway vending machine near where kids eat, district officials said.
"What was the heinous crime for which these fines were levied against the funds that go to help the kids in these schools?" Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, asked colleagues on the House floor Thursday morning. "During the lunch hour their vending machines were plugged in.
"It was wrong to punish kids for these silly reasons," he added.
All schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program, through which they get federal money to help pay for school lunches, must abide by federal nutritional rules about what may be served during that meal.
Here's where it gets tricky: Schools may still sell soda and junk food as long as they don't do so during lunchtime in places kids eat.Neither the state nor federal government has rules about what schools may sell outside of lunch.
But many students at Davis and Box Elder high schools wander the hallways as they eat. So even though neither school placed the vending machines in cafeterias, they were still considered to be in lunch areas, meaning the schools were labeled "out of compliance" by the State Office of Education during district reviews.
Luann Elliott, director of child nutrition programs at the state office, said it's important kids be given healthy choices at school.
"There's an obesity epidemic across the nation now," Elliott said. "Kids are overfed and undernourished, and I think the one place all parents want to feel their kids are being fed the right thing is at school. Kids should learn to eat properly at school."
Some students at Davis High said Thursday they're glad to see some of the junk food gone. Soda in the vending machines has beenreplaced with water, lemonade and Gatorade, and certain candies, such as Starburst and Skittles, have also been replaced though other items such as Snickers bars and Cheetos remain.Those foods are considered to have sufficient nutritional content, according to federal rules.
Senior Sarah Clark, 18, said she'd love to see more fruit and whole wheat snacks in the machines. "It's just hard when you're hungry and there aren't many options."
Sophomore Annie Page said she'll miss the gum which helps her concentrate during class but removing soda was the right call.
"I think that's a good deal because sodas obviously are not healthy for you," Page said. "I know some students will miss it, but I don't drink a lot of soda."
Others, however, feel conflicted. Davis High Principal Dee Burton said he'd like to see the law tweaked. He'd rather see students allowed to choose what they want to drink.
"I understand what Uncle Sam's trying to do," Burton said. "They're trying to make our kids eat healthier, and I support that. Our kids do need to eat healthier. But in high school, with the mobility of the kids, instead of driving them to the cafeteria, we're going to drive them off campus."
Though schools aren't allowed to sell certain foods and sodas during lunch, kids are still allowed to bring them from home, buy them for lunch before the period begins, or go elsewhere and bring back soda.
Burton noted that several years ago, before schools had to follow vending-machine guidelines, the school made about $30,000 a year from the machines, which was put toward activities. Then, full-calorie sodas were removed from the machines because of an American Beverage Association effort to offer healthier fare, and the machines made about half as much money. He said he expects that amount to decline even further now.
Darrell Eddington, the principal at Box Elder, called the rules about where and when food may be served "convoluted."
"I think some regulations are very difficult to read and somewhat unreasonable, certainly not very clear," he said. He believed the school was in compliance because its vending machines were outside of the cafeteria. But because the school has an open floor plan and students wander as they eat, the school was told that the vending machines were technically part of the official dining area, meaning the school was out of compliance.
Eddington said he turned off some vending machines for a day, and one for two weeks, until the vendors could replace the foods and drinks in violation. Burton also turned off the machines until the offending snacks could be replaced. Some of the machines are still off, and Burton is working on clearing out a janitor's room so the school can still run them and be in compliance.
A number of Davis students said Thursday they'll miss the soda. Senior Megan Parker, 18, said the rules don't make much sense.
"I don't think the federal government should try to control what kids eat at school because they're going to be able to just go drive to Smith's and get it anyway," Parker said.
Elliott said the state office typically finds a few schools out of compliance each year. Because she wasn't in her office Thursday, she wasn't able to say which others have faced fines this year. The state office conducts reviews of each school district about once every five years, she said.
More about the program
O For more information about the National School Lunch Program, visit http://www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/lunch/