Obesity fight goes to sugar in schools
The House and Senate health committees jointly endorsed a bill Tuesday for the upcoming legislative session meant to make clear that soda and sugar-sweetened drinks are not welcome in the state's public schools.
The draft measure would repeal a law passed last decade that aimed to promote healthy beverages but ended up conflicting both with state Board of Education policy and federal regulations, Executive Director Richard Goff of the Office of Child Nutrition at the Department of Education told lawmakers.
"We have a law in the books that basically prohibits the sale of any beverages, healthy or unhealthy, during breakfast or lunch," Goff said.
The law also offers conflicting percentages regarding the real fruit content of fruit juices, which along with milk and water are considered healthy beverages, Goff said.
The West Virginia Healthy Lifestyles Coalition requested the repeal, citing the state's high rankings for obesity and Type 2 diabetes. The latter disease, which interferes with the body's delivery of energy from food, was once known as adult-onset diabetes. But as obesity is a leading risk factor, it has emerged among children.
Repealing the statute would dispel the confusion and allow board policy to prevail, Goff said.
"We've taken painstaking measures to try to eliminate soft drinks in public schools just during the instructional day," he told lawmakers.
The voice vote recommending the bill for introduction and passage was not unanimous, with several GOP lawmakers appearing to oppose the measure. Delegate Patrick Lane, R-Kanawha, questioned whether this was part of a trend to give away the Legislature's policy-making powers over public health issues. Lane, a lawyer, represents parents challenging the state's childhood vaccination mandate for public school students, arguing that it goes beyond what lawmakers have approved.
"So, we would be abdicating whatever authority we have regarding sugar in the education realm to the state Board of Education," Lane said during Tuesday's meeting.
Lane also said he's read articles on research finding fruit juices with highly concentrated amount of sugar.
"They actually may have the same amount of calories and sugar as a can of pop, on an ounce-per-ounce basis," Lane said.
Goff said a panel that includes a pediatrician and a nutritionist developed the board's policy and guidelines based in the U.S. Institute of Medicine's standards for healthy beverages.
"There's no nutritional value in sodas, compared to fruit juices," Goff said.
Chocolate milk may be an issue, Goff said, but he added that it provides essential vitamins and minerals and is routinely chosen by at least some students over white milk.
A statewide screen program has recently found that childhood obesity rates are declining in West Virginia as schools focus on improving nutrition and increasing physical activity. Recently fired schools Superintendent Jorea Marple has been credited for pushing those initiatives during her tenure.