Compromise junk-food bill OK'd

Ryan Alessi
March 9, 2005

With barely 15 minutes left in its regularly scheduled law-making session, the General Assembly last night squeezed out legislation setting new nutrition and exercise standards for schools aimed at the growing child-obesity crisis.

Despite widespread support at the outset, the so-called junk-food measure has been barely hanging on in recent weeks after 11th-hour opposition from school administrators and cafeteria directors.

Passage of the bill reverses three years of failure. Following the Senate's 23-7 vote just before midnight, Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr, R-Lexington, one of its main backers, said the measure was "long overdue." It will have "long-lasting benefits for our children," she predicted. The vote triggered applause.

Earlier in the evening, the House passed the bill 63-23.

Lawmakers spent most of yesterday frantically negotiating a compromise between Senate and House versions. They then hopefully pushed the measure into a crowded line of bills awaiting action on the Senate and House floors.

The committee's biggest conflict was over the Senate version's mandated 30 minutes of exercise each day in elementary schools. They substituted more permissive language that leaves implementation of that goal up to local school systems.

The compromise bill adopted many other provisions of the Senate's original bill, which was widely regarded as stronger on many topics than the House version.

Besides encouraging exercise time, the final version will:
| Ban sale of sugary soft drinks in elementary school vending machines and school stores during class hours. Only "school-day-approved" beverages, such as water, 100 percent fruit juice and milk, may be offered.
| Permit schools to sell commercial fast-food lunches just once a week.
| Require each school district to have a credentialed nutrition specialist to plan lunches. It also calls for eight hours of annual continuing education for school food service directors.
| Order food service directors to issue public reports assessing schools' nutrition and exercise progress.

The state Education Department will set regulations on sugary and fatty foods sold in school lunch lines and vending machines. Soft drinks sold at middle and high schools also will be regulated.

The final legislation "is a very important step toward addressing the childhood obesity epidemic," said Carolyn Dennis, a registered dietitian who has been pushing the legislation at the Capitol since 2001.

It could make Kentucky a model for the rest of the nation, she said.

Other states are moving in the same direction. In a much-publicized announcement Sunday, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called for a measure to "ban the sale of all junk food" in the state's public schools.

Yesterday's compromise deleted a controversial provision from the Senate's initial bill that would have forbidden schools from serving deep-fried foods.

Two weeks ago, cafeteria directors flooded legislators with objections to that wording, saying it would have banned common entrees such as chicken nuggets, which are "flash-fried" by food producers before schools get them.

Health and Family Services Cabinet James Holsinger said yesterday his cabinet and the Education Department can restrict the use of deep fryers in school cafeterias later through regulation.

Holsinger actively participated in the conference committee negotiations and met with Senate and House leaders throughout the day. "I think the whole thing is a better bill," he said of the compromise.

Holsinger became involved after the Get Healthy Kentucky board, which was appointed by Gov. Ernie Fletcher, voted Friday to actively support any compromise legislation between the House and Senate.

During yesterday's conference committee negotiations in a cramped Capitol office, some lawmakers argued that the planned provision requiring elementary schools to offer 30 minutes of physical activity was too strict.

"You're mandating what they do for 30 minutes of school time. We don't do that on anything else," said conferee Rep. Frank Rasche, a Paducah Democrat.