Oklahoma Cracks Down on Junk Food in Schools

OKLAHOMA CITY — A bill to prohibit junk food sales in elementary schools and restrict them in higher grades passed the Oklahoma Senate on Tuesday after it was amended to delay the ban until 2007.

Pushed by the Oklahoma Fit Kids Coalition, a private group made up mostly of health professionals, the bill barring the sale of soft drinks and low nutritional snack items tackles the growing problem of obesity, diabetes and other health problems among young people.

A similar bill was voted down in the Senate a year ago after opposition from vending machine companies and school officials, who said they needed the money from vending sales to supplement their budgets.

Sen. Bernest Cain, D-Oklahoma City, said his measure had a “good chance” in the House, where it is sponsored by Rep. Susan Winchester, R-Chickasha, speaker pro tem.

The bill provides that foods of low nutritional value cannot be sold in elementary school, except on special occasions. Such foods also would be prohibited at junior high schools, except for special occasions and after-school activities.

In high school, soft drinks and snack items could be sold, but schools must offer healthy alternative foods and provide incentives to encourage healthy food choices, such as low prices.

Opponents said it was not right for the Legislature to supplant decisions of local school officials on vending machines and take choices away from constituents.

“It nibbles, nibbles at personal freedoms that we all ought to cherish,” said Sen. Owen Laughlin, R-Woodward.

“I personally believe in local control and this flies in the face of that,” said Sen. Randy Brogdon, R-Owasso.

Cain said it was irresponsible for the Legislature to duck decisions that could improve the health of Oklahoma school children.

He said Oklahoma has a growing problem of diabetes and the highest rate of heart disease of any state in the country.

It was not long ago, Cain said, that senators smoked cigarettes from the floor, but now laws have been passed to restrict smoking in most public places.

Sen. Kathleen Wilcoxson, R-Oklahoma City, said when she was a teacher she felt guilty about using vending machine money to paint her school room because she knew it was not right to supply junk food to children.

She said lawmakers should not do anything to perpetuate a system that “contributes to our children’s poor health.”

Over Cain’s objections, Sen. Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City, won approval of an amendment to delay the bill taking effect until July 1, 2007.

Coffee, Senate minority leader, said the delay would allow contracts with vendors to expire.