Senate President Donald Williams (D-Danielson) and Education Commissioner Betty Sternberg today announced a deal that will ban soda and other sugar drinks from public schools. The rest of the proposal is watered down from last year’s bill, as unhealthy snack foods will remain unregulated. The deal also removes an embarrassing issue from the governor’s plate in an election year.Senator Don Williams hands the podium to Commissioner Betty Sternberg.
The school nutrition bill became a major political fight last year because Williams made it one of his top priorities, saying it was important in the fight against childhood obesity. The bill would have banned soda (though not diet drinks) and unhealthy snacks from public schools, and mandated daily exercise for children. However, a coalition of high powered lobbyists representing the junk food industry teamed up with school board representatives (concerned about unfunded mandates) to oppose it. Legislative Republicans criticized the measure as evidence of the nanny state run amok. The bill passed the General Assembly but Gov. M. Jodi Rell issued a veto, generating much criticism for siding with the junk food industry. One of the lead industry lobbyists is a longtime friend of the governor’s.This year’s bill will ban all soda, including diet drinks, along with Gatorade and other unhealthy beverages. Only milk, water and one hundred percent fruit or vegetable juice will be available.But that’s the only piece of straight-up regulation in the bill- the rest contains all voluntary measures. Instead of an outright ban on snack foods, school districts that opt to serve healthier foods will see a two hundred percent increase in the funds they receive per lunch. No mandatory exercise component will be included in the legislation, though state Sen. Edward Meyer (D-Guilford) said a separate bill will be raised in the Children’s Committee addressing that piece.Asked why leadership left snack foods out of the bill when they might be just as bad as soda, Williams said one can of soda consumed a day increases the likelihood of child obesity by 60 percent, and that many adolescents consume two or three sodas a day.“There are some good policies for zeroing in on the soda ban,” Williams said.The governor could support this legislation because it didn’t contain the unfunded mandates of last year’s bill, Rell’s spokesman John Wiltse said. Asked if the governor wanted to remove the issue from an election year spotlight- given that it put her on the same side as junk food lobbyists- Wiltse said no.“The governor evaluates the bills and types of agreements she can support based on the merits,” Wiltse said.