Deal Curbs School Junk Food

Vending machines have always been synonymous with junk food. But that's about to change—at least for kids in public schools. On Friday, the Alliance for a Healthier Generation—an initiative of the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation—announced that five of the nation's top food manufacturers had agreed to the first-ever voluntary guidelines to sell healthier fare in school vending machines and a la carte food lines. This follows the Alliance's deal in May to only allow water, unsweetened juice and low-fat and nonfat milk in elementary and middle schools. Under the plan announced Friday, manufacturers agreed that foods should not get more than 35 percent of their calories from fat or sugar. The goal: to reduce childhood obesity, which all too often leads to adult obesity and problems like heart disease and diabetes. NEWSWEEK's Karen Springen spoke with Raymond Gibbons, president of the American Heart Association, about the agreement with Campbell Soup Co., Dannon, Kraft Foods, Mars and PepsiCo. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How tricky was it to get these five major food manufacturers to sign on?

Raymond Gibbons: All of these manufacturers have their own internal efforts underway to try to improve their product formulation. When they were approached by an organized effort with evidence-based scientific standards, they readily cooperated.

Will the healthier foods show up in vending machines immediately, or will they be phased in over a certain period?

Since these manufacturers were already working on healthier foods, some of their products already meet these standards, and they'll be in the vending machines very quickly. In some cases, they need to reformulate their products to improve them to meet these standards. There's a provision that gives them two years to do that. Where reformulation is necessary, that's a slower process, and that will be phased in.

Why these five? Did any others say no?

These five companies were the most receptive to contact. I can't honestly tell you, because I wasn't part of the effort, [to] what degree others declined. These are important, major players.

Do you know what percent of vending machine food these five manufacturers provide?

It's very difficult to put numbers on the vending machine market. We estimate that these five have a majority of the market.

Do you think other manufacturers will follow suit?

We're hoping increased awareness of these guidelines and this agreement will inspire other companies to join the effort. We're hoping the effort will build over time to include other manufacturers, as well as the intermediaries that are involved in supplying schools.

How important is it that kids snack healthy?

Childhood obesity is epidemic in the United States and is steadily increasing. Kids who are obese are much more likely to become obese adults. Unless this problem is addressed, this generation of Americans will be the first generation that does not outlive their parents.

So this is a big step?

This is a big problem. This is a first step. There needs to be many other steps, such as promoting physical education in schools. We actually have a schools program that we announced in August with a range of criteria schools should have as goals to improve the health of their kids. [Eliminating] snack foods [is] among the criteria in that program.

Under the guidelines, most foods can't get more than 35 percent of their calories from fat and more than 10 percent from saturated fat. What's with the "most"? Which foods will be exceptions?

There are relatively few exceptions, and most of them deal with things that will be phased in over time. The sodium content currently in the soups available through the supply chains exceeds the guidelines. That's going to take time. Foods that have less than 7 percent of saturated fat are allowed to exceed the 35 percent total fat criteria. They can only go up to 40, but they can be exceptions. You'll have to read the labels!

What about salty foods? No more pretzels?

They have to meet the standards for sodium listed in the guidelines. That's a technical thing—230 milligrams, 10 percent of what is the established daily allowance.

Are there any drawbacks? For example, schools presumably may face reduced revenues from vending machines since kids may not want to buy low-sugar, low-fat items as much as they want to buy the high-calorie versions.

The challenge for the snack-food manufacturers is to make certain that foods that are nutritious and meet these standard still meet the generally accepted standards of taste to the consumer. That can be done. In [Friday's] news conference, President Clinton singled out low-fat Dannon yogurt as something he likes and eats as an example of a healthy food that tastes just fine to him and has just 60 calories.

PepsiCo, which owns Frito-Lay and Quaker, said the company already has some products, like baked potato chips and reduced-sugar chewy bars, that meet the guidelines. But it plans to change some recipes. What recipes? Should kids watch for low-fat Snickers?

I can't answer the details for the Pepsi corporation. You'd have to ask them. But all of these manufacturers are going to look hard at their existing products. Whenever we talk about changing the formulation of a product, that's a very extensive process.

Are there any plans to add super healthy foods like apples? Or will kids just not buy them?

One of the provisions in the agreement is to try to encourage fruits and vegetables that don't have a lot of added sugar.

So some day we might be able to buy just apples?

We hope so. If you come to the Mayo Clinic today, you can buy apples in the vending machine. Right now!

Does the agreement cover only machines in schools, or also those in park district buildings and other places where kids often go?

This agreement covers the foods during and after school that are related to the school system and school activities. But the agreement is not restricted to vending machines. It also covers a la carte food lines, school shops, canteens and after-school activities where the school system is responsible for the food supply.

Even football games?

If the school system is responsible for the food supply at after school events, yes. Next time you go to your high-school football game, you'll have to ask who's supplying the food to determine whether this agreement will apply.

What's your own favorite vending-machine item, and will it be allowed under the new guidelines?

I'm actually like the former president. I'm a yogurt fan. In terms of my vending machine purchases, that's a regular in terms of my own daily schedule. As an adult with an elevated cholesterol, I've been careful about my diet for years.

Is there anything else you'd like people to know?

An important question is whether this has a chance of making a difference. This problem has crept up over decades. Given the complexity of this problem, do we see any hope that we can really change things? That hope is the state of Arkansas. Over the last three or four years, a comprehensive program under the leadership of Gov. [Mike] Huckabee had an impact. The rest of the country continues to see an increase in childhood obesity. The latest information from the state of Arkansas is that that increase has stopped. That's a success story, and something we can point to that we may be able to actually make a difference.