Strange Bedfellows Sell Out Schoolchildren's Health
By Michele Simon

Originally published on Ascribe Newswire, September 27, 2021

Lawmakers in California have dealt the latest blow to the state's education system, but this time, it wasn't about test scores or classroom size, but children's health. On the last day of session, a bill that would have set nutrition standards on food sold in California public schools was defeated by only five votes.

The junk food industry is of course ecstatic. But right by their side is an unlikely ally: the California School Food Service Association (CSFSA). This organization of school nutritionists, food managers, and educators has been strongly and actively opposed to every effort in California to establish nutrition standards on food and beverages sold in schools.

While we do have nominal nutrition standards on school meals, for all other foods, it's a junk food free-for-all that makes your corner mini-mart look like a health food store. Last year, a survey of California schools revealed that more than 75 percent of food and beverages sold through vending machines consisted of junk food, sugary sodas, candy, chips, cakes and cookies. A national survey fared no better.

With rising rates of childhood obesity and diabetes, state Sen. Martha Escutia boldly took the lead authoring a bill to address this problem. But her colleagues were apparently more persuaded by the big moneyed interests of the food industry.

A key opponent was the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA), whose 140 members enjoy annual sales of more than $500 billion in the United States alone, and consist of major food corporations such as Kraft, Mars and PepsiCo. GMA is on record as opposing virtually every state bill across the nation that would restrict the sale of junk food or soda in schools. A state as large as California represents huge business, so a defeat there would be devastating both for the lost profits and because of the potential domino effect.

In support of the bill were no fewer than 80 organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the California Medical Association, the California Teachers Association and the California State PTA. Only five organizations opposed the legislation -- four of them industry groups. Standing alone in opposition among public sector organizations was CSFSA. At the last minute, they distributed a floor alert urging legislators to vote against the nutrition standards bill, citing concerns over revenue losses.

We often hear the complaint that in these days of budget cuts, cash-strapped schools need all the money they can get. But students were never supposed to be responsible for subsidizing their public education with their pocket change in the first place. Even so, schools in Los Angeles and around the country have proven they can make more money selling healthier options.

CSFSA also tried to argue that the nutrition standards were overly restrictive. But the guidelines have been thoroughly reviewed, first developed in 2001 by a panel of nationally-recognized school nutrition experts, and further refined by the state legislature over the past three years. In contrast, the CSFSA's proposed nutrition guidelines would allow all foods and beverages to be served or sold on school campuses, which obviously amounts to no standards at all.

Finally, opponents say that schools should be allowed to maintain local control over the food they sell. The California State PTA believes in local control when it serves the best interest of all children and youth, not when it serves to accelerate the sales of junk food. And because the bill did not dictate how the standards should be implemented, it actually supported local decision-making. Even the Association of California School Administrators (representing superintendents and principals), which usually favors local control, recognized nutrition standards and strongly supported the bill.

Students learn not only by what we tell them, but also by what we sell them. And now, California students have learned that their health is for sale.