WASHINGTON — The government’s attempt to reduce childhood obesity is moving from the school cafeteria to the vending machines.
The Obama administration is working on setting nutritional standards for foods that children can buy outside the cafeteria. With students eating 19 percent to 50 percent of their daily food at school, the administration says it wants to ensure that what they eat contributes to good health and smaller waistlines. The proposed rules are expected within the next few weeks.
Efforts to restrict the food that schoolchildren eat outside the lunchroom have long been controversial.
Representatives of the food and beverage industries argue that many of their products contribute to good nutrition and should not be banned. Schools say that overly restrictive rules, which could include banning the candy sold for school fund-raisers, risk the loss of substantial revenue that helps pay for sports, music and arts programs. A study by the National Academy of Sciences estimates that about $2.3 billion worth of snack foods and beverages are sold annually in schools nationwide.
Nutritionists say that school vending machines stocked with potato chips, cookies and sugary soft drinks contribute to childhood obesity, which has more than tripled in the past 30 years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that about one in every five children are obese.
No details of the proposed guidelines have been released, but health advocates and snack food and soft drink industry representatives predict that the rules will be similar to those for the government’s school lunch program, which reduced amounts of sugar, salt and fat.
Those rules set off a fight between parents and health advocates on one side, who praised the standards, and the food industry, which argued that some of the proposals went too far. Members of Congress stepped in to block the administration from limiting the amount of potatoes children could be served and to allow schools to continue to count tomato paste on a pizza as a serving of vegetables.
Nancy Huehnergarth, executive director of the New York State Healthy Eating and Physical Activity Alliance in Millwood, N.Y., said she expected a similar fight over the vending machine rules.
“I think the food and beverage industry is going to fight tooth and nail over these rules,” Ms. Huehnergarth said.
But representatives of the food and beverage industry say they generally support selling healthier snacks and drinks in schools.
“But we are a little concerned that they might make the rules too stringent,” said James A. McCarthy, president of the Snack Food Association, a trade group in Washington.
Mr. McCarthy said the industry supported nutritional snacks and was working with the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation, headed by the former president, in an initiative called the Alliance for a Healthier Generation to establish voluntary guidelines for healthier foods in schools.
The foods include baked rather than fried potato chips, dry-roasted nuts and low-sodium pretzels, Mr. McCarthy said.
Christopher Gindlesperger, director of communications for the American Beverage Association, whose members include Coca-Cola and Pepsi, said his industry had also worked with schools to reduce or eliminate sugary drinks and replace them with healthier alternatives.
“Our members have voluntarily reduced the calories in drinks shipped to schools by 88 percent and stopped offering full-calorie soft drinks in school vending machines,” Mr. Gindlesperger said.
But a study in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine released this month shows that despite industry efforts and those of others, snacking behavior among children remains largely unchanged. One reason is that healthier snacks were being offered alongside less nutritious offerings.
Between 2006 and 2010, the study found, about half of the schools had vending machines, stores and cafeterias that offered unhealthy foods.
The availability of high-fat foods in schools followed regional patterns. In the South, where rates of childhood obesity are the highest, less nutritious food was more prevalent. In the West, where childhood obesity rates are lower, high-fat food was not as common, the study found.
Health advocates say the study points to the need for national standards.
Jessica Donze Black, director of the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project at the Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington, gave the food industry credit for trying to reduce sugary drinks and fatty snacks, but said the voluntary guidelines did not go far enough.
“What we have is a fragmented system where some schools do a good job of limiting access to junk food and others don’t,” she said. “We need a national standard that ensures that all schools meet some minimum guidelines.”
Still, some school districts question whether students would buy healthy foods offered in vending machines and school stores. Frequently vending machines with healthy alternative snacks are ignored, and children bring snacks from home or buy them at local stores off-campus during lunch periods. Roger Kipp, food service director for the Norwood school district in Ohio, said children could be persuaded to eat healthy foods and schools could still make a profit.
Two years ago, Mr. Kipp eliminated vending machines and school stores in his district and replaced them with an area in the lunchroom where they could buy wraps, fruit or yogurt. Children ate better, and the schools made some money.
“It took a while, but it caught on,” Mr. Kipp said. “You have to give the kids time. You can’t replace 16 years of bad eating habits overnight.”