The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) last week proposed the new junk food rules, which are due to come into effect in the 2006-2007 school year.
The new regulation would effectively replace existing rules that currently prohibit the sale of junk food in elementary schools during breakfast and lunch. The ban may now be extended to the entire school day in an effort to prevent students from snacking between meal times.
The new rules would also change the definition of junk food "to focus on what's most important" - the food's nutritional content, said the ISBE. This spells bad news for the future of foods with low or little nutritional value, such as candy, soda, pizza and chips.
"The State Board is defining junk food in a way that makes sense and ensures the health of children. These rules will help students have a healthier diet and perform better in school," said ISBE chairman Jesse Ruiz.
The State Board has the authority to implement the ban under the National School Lunch Program, a voluntary program, which provides funding to schools that implement certain nutritional guidelines.
Under terms of the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act, by July 1, 2006 every school that participates in the school lunch or school breakfast program- the large majority of US schools- must have a local wellness policy in place.
The policy, designed to address the problem of childhood obesity, requires that schools set nutrition standards for all foods sold in school, including in vending machines, a la carte lines, and school stores.
Although the wellness policy will not be federally regulated and is likely to differ form school to school, it will contribute to addressing a loophole that allows the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to set standards for foods sold in the lunchroom, but forbids it from setting standards for foods sold elsewhere on campus.
And in general, there are few school nutrition policies related to 'competitive foods'- or snack and soda products sold in schools, says a recent study published last month in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.
Illinois authorities would not be the first to implement restrictions on the sale of junk food in schools, in response to concerns over the growing incidence of childhood obesity. And with 16 percent of the nation's children currently classed as obese, another worrying fact is that Type II Diabetes, which used to be known as adult onset diabetes, is now increasingly being diagnosed in kids, adding to the cardiovascular risk profile of children.
Elementary schools in Arizona, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, and West Virginia have already banned the sale of junk food in schools until at least after lunch. And other states have gone even further. Hawaii bans junk food in all schools all day. Florida bans the sale of junk food in elementary schools all day, and in secondary schools until after lunch.
The new measures proposed in Illinois are designed to "reduce the temptation for kids to replace nutritious meals at school" with junk food, according to Governor Rod Blagojevich.
"Good nutrition helps children attend school more regularly, behave better when they're in school, and score better on tests. But despite the obvious reasons to eat healthy, for children, the temptation to eat junk food can just be too great," he said.
Indeed, other moves are also being made to get unhealthy products out of schools.
A new lawsuit aimed at removing soft drinks from schools is now ready to go, according to Professor Richard Daynard, a lawyer who has already taken on the tobacco firms, and who spent much of 2005 gathering evidence and witnesses to launch this new court battle.
And Senator Tom Harkin recently called for a radical overhaul of USDA food standards in order to drag them into line with current thinking on obesity and nutrition.
"We need a more active federal government in setting guidance for public schools," he had said in September at the Healthy Schools Summit 2005 in Washington D.C. The summit, which was attended by government, business and non-profit groups, involved two days of discussion on how to improve the health of children.
"Currently, under 30 year-old USDA standards, it's just fine for schools to sell ice cream, Oreos, Snickers candy bars, donuts, and all kinds of other junk foods. Obviously, it's time to update USDA standards based on all that we have learned about nutrition and obesity over the last three decades," he added.