success stories Boosting Good Nutrition in California's Schools

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California has implemented a law passed by the state legislature that put in place sweeping improvements in the food offerings available in that state’s schools. Known as Smart Snacks in Schools, the momentum it created is already driving changes in the junk food marketing that continues to exist in the schools there.

Senate Bill 1169, which took effect in January 2017, requires that all competitive foods and beverages sold in schools participating in the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs must follow state and federal healthy-food requirements. Competitive foods and beverages are those that are sold to students on school campus during the school day in vending machines, student stores, á la carte items sold by the school food service department, or as fundraisers.

The legislation was pushed by health advocates in that state because the availability of unhealthy foods competes with and undermines efforts to improve student nutrition through school breakfast, lunch, and healthy snack programs. Prior to the law change, competitive food venues were the primary source of junk food during the day for students, who spend over half of their waking hours and consume up to half of their daily calories at school.

Josh Brown, grassroots advocacy director for the American Heart Association, says that the law was an effort to shore-up and codify federal school nutrition standards in California’s schools and thereby help improve the health of California teens, one third of whom are classified as overweight or obese, putting them at increased risk of heart disease and other chronic illnesses.

He says that the momentum created by the passage and implementation of the competitive foods law provided health advocates with the impetus to take a comprehensive approach regarding regulations pertaining to junk food marketing in schools, as well. Assembly Bill 841 passed the California State Legislature in 2017 and restricts the marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages in schools. It awaits the governor’s signature.

“The junk food marketing law is designed to correct a real irony in that the foods that schools sell on campus are healthy but schools still market unhealthy products, which sends mixed messages to students,” says Brown, who points to the fact that students are often subjected to a bombardment of advertisements on campus such as coupons for free, unhealthy fast food.

If AB 841 is enacted, schools will only be able to advertise foods they are allowed to sell on campus. Both measures had broad public support with the primary opposition coming from major food and beverage companies that Brown says know the power of their marketing in the schools.

“They know that if they can get kids used to eating unhealthy foods like chips or candy bars as snacks in 1st and 2nd grades, they will likely continue those snacking habits for the rest of their lives.”

“Schools are places of learning and should be safe havens where students go to prepare for their future as healthy and productive citizens,” says Assembly Member Shirley Weber, author of the legislation restricting junk food marketing. “[The legislation] helps ensure that schools are places were youth receive a consistent set of messages about healthy eating.”