BOSTON — The Massachusetts Senate unanimously passed a bill Thursday that bans the sale of salty and sugary snacks and high-calorie sodas in public schools as the state looks to battle a rising tide of childhood obesity.
The bill (PDF) requires the Department of Public Health to work with the education department to develop nutritional standards for all foods sold in schools, including snacks from vending machines, by the start of the 2012-2013 academic school year.
The measure also requires schools to sell fresh fruits and vegetables, ban deep fried foods, provide students with instruction on nutrition and exercise, and buy locally grown food from farms, where possible.
Backers of the bill say the extra regulations are critical at a time when one out of every three children in the country is overweight.
“Something has to be done and I think this is a step toward making a healthier environment and providing better choices for kids,” said Dr. Lynda Young, a pediatrician in Worcester.
Dr. Young said she’s been in practice 32 years and has seen a steady increase in weight-related health problems among children, from Type 2 diabetes to knee problems. Young said there are multiple causes, from children spending too much time in front of televisions and computer screens to overworked parents trying to make ends meet.
“Sitting at home having a meal together is pretty rare these days and when it happens, it’s often fast-food because mom is working late,” she said.
Lynn Petrowski, president of the Massachusetts Nutrition Association, agrees that the bill is a positive step. She told WBUR before the vote on Thursday that schools have an important role in fighting childhood obesity.
“We know that obesity is an issue in our children,” Petrowski said. “We support proper nutrition for children and we model it. And that’s important to note, we are role models and we are educators in the cafeteria as well as in the classrooms.”
“Not all people have the same ability to serve healthy foods in their homes,” she added, “so if the schools are doing it, it’s a great help to families.”
The bill addresses those health concerns by requiring the Department of Public Health, along with the education department and the Department of Mental Health, to set guidelines to help school nurses screen and refer children suffering from childhood obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and eating disorders.
Thursday’s debate in the Senate came after the House passed similar legislation in January. Gov. Deval Patrick wants to go further by lifting the sales tax exemption on candy and soda and funneling the extra revenue into health programs.
Not everyone is backing the effort.
Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, said local school districts have already taken strides to make sure they are serving healthier foods and increasing nutrition education for students.
What schools don’t need, especially as they struggle with shrinking budgets, is more state mandates, Koocher said.
“It’s another heap of regulations on districts that are already overwhelmed,” he said. “Enough is enough.”
Koocher said the bill could also hurt school’s budgets because they receive a portion of the money spent in vending machines.
“It’s not big money, but it is the kind of money that could support field trips,” he said.
Massachusetts isn’t alone in trying to encourage healthier eating in schools.
Last year, 10 states passed school nutrition and nutrition education laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Louisiana adopted a new law requiring schools sell bottled water, no-calorie or low-calorie beverages, fruit juices and low-fat, skim and nondairy milk, while Vermont launched a new program designed to encourage the purchasing of local milk and meat for school meals.
In Texas, lawmakers approved a new law to help encourage young children to eat more fruits and vegetables and boost daily physical activity in early childhood care settings.
Four states — Louisiana, Maine, New York and North Carolina — also passed bills to help assess the physical fitness or body mass index of students, according to the NCSL.
Hazel Rosario’s three sons are in the sixth grade in Holyoke and she says they and other students would benefit not only from healthier food in schools, but from education on what to eat and what not to eat.
Rosario said that’s especially true in communities where parents have to struggle to pay the bills while also trying to afford higher quality food.
“In a lot of the poorer communities, even if we want to eat healthier, it’s so expensive,” she said.
“Everyone is getting diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol. In reality we’re not eating healthy.”