A NEW STUDY released last month found that the number of high school students in South Carolina who are overweight or obese has increased by a third, from 24 percent to 32 percent, in just the past decade. The biennial Youth Risk Behavior Survey picked up on at least two obvious reasons: Only a third of students were enrolled in physical education classes, and just 15 percent said they had eaten five or more servings of fruits and vegetables in the entire week before the survey.
It's hardly news that kids are getting fatter even faster than the rest of us, and at an ever-younger age - and that the consequences of this are dire for the children involved and for the taxpayers who eventually will be called on to pick up part or all of the tab for their increased risk for diabetes, heart attack, stroke and early death. Still, it's useful to have that information quantified, and that quantification underscores just how important a bill is that a Senate Education subcommittee approved on the eve of the report's release.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Bakari Sellers and up for debate this morning in the full Education Committee, would ban the sale of high-fat or high-calorie snacks - including all but diet soft drinks - in all public schools, and prohibit school cafeterias from selling individual items that are high in fat or sugar. High-fat and high-sugar items still could be sold as part of a meal that as a whole meets fat and sugar rules, so pizza would be fine if it's paired with a nice salad, and you could even throw in a brownie. And nothing in the bill would limit in any way what children could bring from home to eat. Please re-read that last sentence before you continue.
Critics deride it as nanny legislation. Yet another example of an overreaching, do-gooder government trying to make decisions for parents. The Associated Press reported that Sen. Larry Grooms went so far as to say the Legislature had no business "micromanaging" what students can buy at school - which made me wonder if he thinks the Legislature should avoid "micromanaging" if schools started, say, selling condoms to students.
The political reality is that the S.C. House, which passed this bill unanimously last spring, is about the least likely body you can imagine to pass nanny-state legislation. And it didn't. This bill isn't about what children are allowed to do, and it's certainly not about what their parents are allowed to allow them to do. It's about what the schools encourage and facilitate - and profit from.
If anything, this bill is the opposite of legislative interference in family matters. It's the government promising parents that it will stop sabotaging their efforts to raise healthy children, which it now does by offering them vending machines filled with Cokes and Pepsis and potato chips and candy bars and other empty-calorie foods that some parents refuse to keep in their homes.
If parents aren't worried about what their kids are eating, the bill shouldn't matter one way or the other. It merely means that the government will do no harm - and might even expose children to healthy alternatives to the fried-food, sugar-saturated diet that society is pushing on us all. The only parents who could possibly object to that are those who want their kids to OD on junk food. And if there are any of them in our state, I don't particularly care what they think.
In a perfect world, the Legislature wouldn't have to pass a law to prohibit schools from selling junk food, because schools wouldn't sell junk food - just like they don't sell sexually suggestive CDs and violent video games and radar detectors and other products that are perfectly legal but that can harm children (and adults).
Of course, in a perfect world, the Legislature would provide schools with enough money to buy the things they now rely on lucrative vending machine contracts to fund, and the federal school lunch program would provide enough money to pay for the more expensive healthy food instead of the much cheaper high-fat, high-sugar diets we're training kids to expect.
Alas, the world is imperfect. Principals and school boards, with no little help from the Coke and Pepsi lobby, managed to water down the Legislature's last attempt, in 2004, to kick the junk out of school; that latest survey shows how much good the resulting half-measure has done.
Since then, schools have only gotten squeezed tighter in the fiscal vise that is part a result of the economy and part a result of the Legislature's bad tax policy decisions. And I truly sympathize with their plight. But that doesn't change the fact that schools are supposed to be nurturing children - not facilitating their injury.
There are a lot of things schools could do to raise money, but they don't because they're wrong. This should be on that list.
In some schools and districts it already is. But for those schools where the local officials haven't come to terms with the problem with profiting from junk food sales, the Legislature needs to make it clear. This bill is a very modest effort to do that, and lawmakers should pass it.