Healthier food and drinks are slowly finding their way into U.S. school lunchrooms, just under a year after leading companies first voluntarily agreed to ban high-calorie, low-nutrition products from schools.
These are welcome changes since 17 percent of Americans between the ages of 2 and 19, or 12 million of them, are overweight. But nutrition experts said the food and beverage industry needs to do more.
“There are definitely healthier products in schools (today) than three years ago,” said Joy Johanson, a policy analyst at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a nutrition advocacy group that has negotiated with soft drink makers for healthier beverages in schools. “But there is still a long way to go.”
The first big move toward healthy products in schools came in May 2006, when Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo Inc. and Cadbury Schweppes Plc, along with the American Beverage Association, established guidelines to provide more nutritious beverages at schools.
The agreement was brokered by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a joint initiative of the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation.
In January, Bravo! Brands Inc. started selling a 150-calorie, 8-ounce bottle of flavored milk in school vending machines through a distribution tie-up with Coca-Cola Enterprises Inc..
The Bravo alliance is part of Coke’s effort to supply nutritious drinks to schools that already buy its sodas. Bravo’s low-fat milks contain sucralose, a calorie-free sweetener, are fortified with vitamins and minerals and meet the Alliance guidelines.
Bravo milk currently reaches about 8,000 schools and the company hopes to double that number by the end of 2007, Chief Executive Roy Warren said in an interview.
Although Bravo has had to launch awareness campaigns to sell kids on the idea of Starburst- and Milky Way-flavored milk, consumers are “much more open-minded today as it relates to better-for-you beverages,” Warren said.
The Alliance has also brokered agreements with snack and food companies to supply healthier “competitive” foods in schools, called so because they compete with reimbursable meals served under the federal National School Lunch Program.
The Dannon Company Inc., party to an October 2006 agreement to supply healthier foods to schools, sells a range of low-fat yogurts and smoothies, while co-signatory Pepsi is reformulating its popular Doritos, Cheetos and Quaker products for the 2007-2008 school year to meet the Alliance’s guidelines, company spokesman Charles Nicolas said.
Pepsi will also launch Frito-Lay’s Flat Earth fruit/vegetable crisps in schools.
In February, Dole Food Co. began testing selling fresh fruit through school vending machines in four states.
Weak regulations for foods sold outside the federal lunch program, existing contracts that commit schools to selling products supplied by soda companies and the voluntary nature of agreements are slowing down progress, the CSPI’s Johanson said.
She was hopeful that legislation introduced in the U.S. Congress last year would create a federal standard for what can be sold in schools.
Companies’ reluctance to make changes may be due in part to the $165 billion a year that children under 12 and adolescents spend on food and beverages, according to research presented by Kelly Brownell, director of Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, at a March hearing on the Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act of 2006.
“It can be anticipated that the food industry will ... fight this act, arguing that voluntary self-regulation by the industry will be sufficient to protect the well-being of the nation’s children,” Brownell said in his testimony.
Industry and Alliance representatives defended the agreements, saying the complexity involved in making changes at more than 100,000 schools slows things down.
“These agreements are aimed at long-term change,” said Ben Yarrow, a spokesman for the Clinton Foundation. “Over time, these will dramatically change what companies offer in schools.”