This piece first appeared on October 9, 2009 in the New York Daily News:
This week, the city's Department of Education is rolling out new rules for beverage and snack-food vending machines in public schools. Drinks will now be allowed to have no more than 25 calories per 8 ounces - and no artificial sweeteners or caffeine or carbonation.
Drinks will be, in effect, restricted to water, seltzer or unsweetened tea. Snacks will be limited not only in calories, but also in the fraction of calories in them that comes from fat and sugar.
These rules are wholly unscientific. Don't the city's nutrition nannies know that all calories count the same - whether from fat, sugar or protein? When did they decide that artificial sweeteners were "unhealthy" too? Did they get that off of fringe Internet sites?
And what does carbonation have to do with anything? Is there a fear that the little bubbles might burn children's tongues?
Still more amazing: not only calories will be restricted, but also sodium, too. It is true that, overall, Americans consume more sodium than public health experts recommend, and for some people with underlying heart or kidney disease, or high blood pressure, that is a problem. But sodium is also necessary for good health, and it's likely that slashing it in young people's diets will cause more health problems than it will solve.
There is no medical basis for broadly, arbitrarily limiting sodium intake in teenagers' diets.
Allegedly aimed at the rampant obesity among our kids, these draconian regulations are wrong-headed and counterproductive.
That's right - they will more likely hinder than help the fight against obesity.
Here's why. The schools' lapsed vending contract (with Snapple) brought in big bucks, which helped fund various activities, including physical education and extracurricular athletics. The new contract is expected to bring in less money because the snacks sold will be "healthier" (read: less popular). With budget cutbacks already threatening to eliminate many elective programs, that means there will be less new money to defray cutbacks in athletics and other school-based exercise - thus reducing one of the key ingredients in a healthy lifestyle.
Under a law approved this summer that renewed the mayor's control over the city schools, the Panel for Educational Policy must approve any contract worth more than $1 million. Yet mysteriously, the department reportedly refuses to give the panel members all the details of the new contracts until they are approved; instead, they just get a summary.
Will these onerous restrictions lead to a black market in junk food, where a young entrepreneur standing in the shadows sells salty snacks and real Diet Coke to his peers, while being ever vigilant for the footsteps of the food police?
Along with the de facto ban on student-sponsored bake sales, the whole campaign smacks of political agendas and moral rectitude substituting for sound nutritional science, wielded against perceived "unhealthy" foods.
I foresee the day when there will be snack detectors right next to the metal detectors in our schools, to keep out undesirable food and drink.