October 7th, 2006

Snack Makers Strike Deal To Alter School Offerings

By Annys Shin
Washington Post

Five snack food makers including PepsiCo, Mars Inc. and Kraft Foods Inc. have pledged to replace Doritos and doughnuts with healthier products in school vending machines and snack bars under a voluntary agreement brokered by former president Bill Clinton and the American Heart Association.

The agreement is the latest attempt to improve the nutritional content of food sold in schools, which has come under intense scrutiny because of rising rates of childhood obesity.

Yesterday’s agreement is modeled after one brokered by Clinton and the AHA earlier this year with Coca-Cola Co., Pepsi and Cadbury Schweppes PLC to stop selling non-diet soft drinks in schools. A 2001 USDA study found 56 percent to 85 percent of children consume soft drinks on any given day.

It was unclear whether yesterday’s agreement would have the same effect as the previous pact because snack food makers do not have as much influence over how their products are distributed as soft drink makers.

Snack foods are sold to schools and school districts by independent distributors and contract operators, and school vending machines are stocked by third-party vending companies. Snacks are also bought by school officials, teachers and coaches to sell at school activities and fundraisers.

Representatives of the companies said they would work to “encourage” their distributors and competitors to support the guidelines.

The three companies, joined by Campbell Soup Co. and Dannon Co., said they would limit the number of calories from fat to no more than 35 percent, the number of calories from saturated fat to 10 percent, and the amount of sugar by weight to 10 percent. The guidelines also limit sodium to 480 mg. Soup, however, will be temporarily exempt from the limit as long as it meets requirements for protein, vitamins and minerals.

Some children’s advocates criticized the agreement. Gary Ruskin, the executive director of Commercial Alert, a group that has criticized the marketing of snack foods to kids, called the accord “a public relations stunt,” saying, “It is entirely voluntary and not enforceable. The industry can back away from the deal tomorrow.”

The guidelines attempt to fill a gap in the regulation of school food. The U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates the nutritional content of subsidized school meals and prohibits the sale of “foods of minimal nutritional value” only in school cafeterias during regular meal times. Foods sold outside of breakfast and lunch in vending machines, in school stores, and at school-sponsored activities don’t fall under federal rules.

Some states and school districts have imposed nutritional standards on snack foods sold outside breakfast and lunch, including D.C. public schools, which last year replaced high-sugar, high-fat snacks in school vending machines with lower-sugar, lower-fat substitutes, spokeswoman Patricia Williams said.

The AHA and the William J. Clinton Foundation said they would begin collecting data next year on the kinds of snacks and desserts being sold in schools and report on the impact of the guidelines at two-year intervals through 2011.

Several of the companies that signed on to the agreement said they were taking steps to make snacks more nutritious. Dannon spokesman Michael Neuwirth said its products already meet the guidelines. Mars spokeswoman Alice Nathanson said the candy maker was testing products that meet the guidelines in hopes of offering them by the next school year. Pepsi also said it would rework some of its products.

In 2003, Kraft, maker of Oreo cookies, Ritz crackers, Kool-Aid, Jell-O and Oscar Mayer lunch meats, said it would no longer market its products in schools and would try to limit sales of certain products in school vending machines.

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