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Updated: Monday, 27 Feb 2012, 7:01 AM EST
Published : Monday, 27 Feb 2012, 5:00 AM EST
INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) - Six years ago, Indiana lawmakers approved new guidelines aimed at cracking down on the availability of junk food in schools. But, a 24-Hour News 8 analysis shows most students still have easy access to all sorts of sweet and salty snacks.
The findings come on the heels of a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois, and published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. Nearly half of the 4,000 public and private elementary schools nationwide included in the study allowed students to buy unhealthy snacks at school through vending machines, snack kiosks or snack bars.
24-Hour News 8 wanted to see if Indiana’s Public Law 54 was preventing that trend from being mirrored in Indiana.
A CLOSER LOOK AT THE LAW
P.L. 54, which took effect in 2006, requires at least half of the foods in Indiana school vending machines to be "healthy choice options." It also prevents vending machines that dispense foods and beverages from being accessible to elementary school students during the school day. Some schools take the mandate even farther, preventing access during the school day at all grade levels.
But, as the day ends at many of those schools, the vending machines open for business.
Some of their offerings might surprise you. They include such items as dried apple slices, animal crackers, fruit snacks, baked chips and low fat pretzels. Many beverage vending machines also contain low-fat milk, juice and low calorie options.
“Items in our vending machines must meet not more than 30 percent of calories from fat, not more than 10 percent of calories from trans-fats or saturated fats, and they can be no more than 35 percent weight of added sugars,” Franklin Township Assistant Director of Food Services Sheri Shipp told 24-Hour News 8’s Troy Kehoe. “They must have 50 percent of the healthy choice options. And, students aren’t allowed to use these [elementary school] vending machines during the day.”
Those healthy options are mandated under P.L. 54. “Healthy choice” items are limited by portion size if the food contains more than 210 calories. Beverages cannot exceed 20 ounces. Soft drinks, punch, iced tea and coffee cannot be served, and all drinks must be caffeine free and cannot contain caloric sweeteners. Fruit and vegetable juices must contain at least 50 percent real juice.
But, the mandates do not apply to school lunches or to snacks sold after school hours.
They were designed, in part, to help make Indiana's obesity level go down. Instead, it’s shot up at an alarming rate. According to a recent study from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Indiana’s obesity rate stood at 18.3 percent in 1995 (the first year data was tracked and compiled from all 50 states). Last year, the Foundation measured Indiana’s obesity rate at 29.3 percent. That’s the 15th highest rare in the country.
Recent studies suggest rapid rise in the nation’s childhood obesity rate has slowed, but continues to climb. The Foundation’s latest research sets it at about 18 percent nationwide.
Many experts cite school nutrition standards as the biggest reason why.
NO REASON TO FOLLOW THEM
While Indiana is among the small number of states that imposes nutrition standards beyond current federal requirements, students 24-Hour News 8 spoke with said there was little reason to follow them.
“There are more healthy foods [in vending machines], but people still mostly do the snacks and candy and junk food,” said Cathedral High School student Andrew Scarlott.
Asked if he was included in that group, Scarlott nodded.
“I just usually buy candy, not the healthy stuff I probably should buy. It tastes better,” he said.
“It’s mostly candy and junk food,” agreed Ben Baker.
Asked if students were even experimenting with some of the healthier options, Baker grinned.
“Not the ones I know,” he said.
Shipp said responses like that aren’t surprising.
“I think they are making [healthy choices] more and more. But, you still have the kids that are going to make choices that aren't as healthy. And, we do still see the rows [in vending machines] where the maybe more unhealthy choices are going to be empty before the healthier choices,” she said.
Sales numbers appear to back that up.
VENDING A BETTER PRODUCT
Inside the corporate offices of Indianapolis based International Vending Management, there are signs of a changing industry.
“We are moving to a healthier type option,” said Director of Operations Julie Clesi. “Years ago, this was viewed as a cash business, and a way for companies to get some business in the door. Now, people are a lot more focused on what's in the machines. And, that includes schools.”
Clesi says IVM’s vending machines now contain, on average, between 25 percent and 30 percent “healthy choice” items, though machines placed in schools must conform with the state standards of 50 percent.
“The biggest change in the schools is the amount of time kids have access to the equipment. Normally now, that's just
for a brief period after school. 20 years ago, they could access the vending machines throughout the day,” she said.
Asked if healthy choice options were selling, Clesi paused.
“A lot of people still pick the less healthy options,” she said. “I think the schools and companies that are going to the programs--they want [the less healthy options] available. You can't force it. We have in the past tried to force it on people and had to back off a little bit.”
Pausing again, Clesi looked at a vending machine nearby.
“The healthy choices options are advancing,” she continued. “They taste a lot better then they did. As that progresses, I think people will move toward them more. But, at the end of the day, if a kid wants a candy bar, that's probably what they're going to buy.”
It’s one reason why some local schools are eliminating snacking options altogether.
At Nora Elementary School in Washington Township, "snack time" no longer comes with a choice. The school got a federal grant this year to test out a “fresh fruits and vegetables” program. There are no longer any vending machines accessible to students on school grounds.
“We teach the kids what to eat, how to eat and when to eat,” said Principal Suzanne Zybert. “Many kids bring snacks to school every day because kids love to eat. So, the idea with this opportunity is for kids not only to eat, but to be able to have healthy choices. And, we’re introducing it to them in a way that makes it fun, but also where they can build a personal connection.”
Each morning and afternoon, the school’s cafeteria staff cart around red snack coolers, featuring the NFL’s “Play 60” logo. Each is filled with the day’s selection of fruit of vegetable, from dried apricots to plums and celery sticks.
“And we’ll make them fun. We had celery and crème cheese the other day, and a lot of kids had never had crème cheese before. When you give them the foundation of knowing what this tastes like, when they go to the grocery store with their parents, it's--oh--I had this at school at it was really good! And, I've had many, many parents tell me--thank you for exposing my child to something that I could have never gotten them to eat at home,” Zybert said.
The goal of the program, she said, is not to cut the fun out of eating, but to show students that there are tasty options that can be healthy, too.
“We're not telling them don't have that tootsie roll. We're just giving them a healthy alternative, and the kids are really responding” Zybert said.
PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE
It’s all reason for optimism about school nutrition ahead, Shipp said.
“I think it really is our job in schools to continue to offer [healthy options], no matter how many they choose,” she said. “So, hopefully, it catches on in the end.”
Some schools are exploring other options, like lowering prices on healthy items or raising prices on those that aren't. Vending machine companies are already examining similar approaches, Clesi said.
Asked if additional government regulation was expected on programs that might affect pricing, Clesi nodded.
“I wouldn’t see any reason why it wouldn’t look like we’re heading down that road,” she said.
New pressure from Washington is already on the way.
Late last year, the USDA announced it will implement new nutrition standards on all foods sold in schools, no longer just those sold in a cafeteria or school lunch line. The changes, backed by the Obama administration, are set to take effect gradually over the next three years.