School Food on the Brink of “Mass” Change

by Jean Alves

On Thursday, January 28, the Massachusetts Representatives passed House Bill 4459, “ An Act Relative to School Nutrition”.  Eight years in the making, supportive legislators and community advocates alike are celebrating this milestone achievement.  The bill now goes to the Senate for further discussion and fine-tuning.

According to Maddie Ribble, Director of Advocacy and Media at the Massachusetts Public Health Association (MPHA), the climate on Beacon Hill is “optimistic”.

“We’re very close to starting a new chapter in school nutrition,” says Ribble.  “And now, with more than one in four Massachusetts high school students overweight or obese, we can’t turn the page fast enough.

The Act directs the Department of Public Health (DPH) to develop standards for snacks and beverages sold in vending machines, school stores, snack bars, and cafeteria a la carte lines in order to nurture an environment of healthful meal and snack options while curtailing junk food competition.  Establishing these guidelines will be the next order of business upon the bill’s passage in the Senate.

The standards set would promote non-fried vegetables and fresh fruits, whole grains, and low- and non-fat dairy products.  Non-carbonated and additive-free water and 100% juices would be encouraged while highly processed and calorie-laden junk foods, like sodas, candy bars, and potato chips will be limited or banned entirely.  By leaving these more explicit prescriptions out of the statute itself, room is left for flexibility and evolution of school nutrition regulations over time.

Another highlight of the most recent version of the bill is the inclusion of farm-to-school language.  The Act aims to make it easier for schools to purchase food directly from Massachusetts farmers.  This would not only enhance schools’ access to fresh fruits and vegetables, but also support the Bay State’s agricultural economy.

Additionally, the School Nutrition Act would establish a Commission on Childhood Obesity to develop and coordinate statewide wellness policies and programs in order to address the ever-pressing issues of obesity and weight-related diseases among students.  The DPH and Department of Education would also work together to create guidelines for training all school nurses to help children with diabetes and eating disorders and to collect and evaluate data on these conditions.

The legislation has accrued a wide base of supporters both inside and out of the State House.  In addition to the bill’s sponsor, Representative Peter Koutoujian, it was backed by a vote of 152-4 in the house, and Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo communicated that it was a high priority bill.  Ribble said that, with luck, the School Nutrition Act could be approved by the Senate by early April.

In addition, the bill has over 100 organizational supporters. Other champions of the act include the Massachusetts Public Health Association (the organization that has coordinated the effort to support the bill’s passage), the American Heart/American Stroke Association, Massachusetts Medical Association, Massachusetts School Nurses Association, American Diabetes Association, Project Bread, Walk for Hunger, Children’s Hospital Boston, and the School Nutrition Association

However, Ribble said that more important than luck is the vocal support of Massachusetts voters.  To students registered here in the Bay State, he said,“It’s very important to let your Senator and the Senate President [Therese Murray] know that you support this bill.”  After all, the interests of the Legislature are the interests of its constituents, after all.

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