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September 15, 2009

DiNapoli: Improvements Needed in School Food Choices

An audit released today by Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli found that while school districts are meeting federal nutritional standards for their school lunch programs, the availability of junk food in vending machines is undermining sound nutrition in schools across the state. Auditors found that 191 out of 200 vending machine items tested did not meet the suggested guidelines of the Institute of Medicine (IOM), including such items as chocolate shortcake, ice cream bars, cheddar and bacon-flavored potato chips and cherry pies.

“New York has more than a million obese young people,” said DiNapoli. “Obesity related health care expenses for these children cost $242 million annually. And the dollars get bigger as these students grow older. Health care costs for obese adult New Yew Yorkers are nearly $6.1 billion a year, the second highest in the nation.”

“School vending machines filled with junk food, candy and soda is not the best way to fight childhood obesity. Allowing school districts to set their own guidelines for what type of food is sold in vending machines clearly isn’t working. The State Education Department has missed an opportunity to help reduce the State’s childhood obesity epidemic.”

Auditors found that all of the 20 school districts examined had adopted required wellness policies and provided school lunch programs that meet National School Lunch Program guidelines, while 16 of the 20 school districts had active nutrition advisory committees, which were generally found to be helpful. However, SED allows school districts to set their own guidelines for foods and beverages sold outside of the school lunch program, known as competitive products. SED regulations only restrict when some competitive foods may be sold during the school day (only after the last lunch period).

DiNapoli’s audit found that four districts did not develop any guidelines for competitive foods and beverages. Of the 16 districts that had guidelines, only four districts were in compliance; the remaining 12 districts offered foods that did not meet their own guidelines. In examining a sample of 160 competitive food items sold in the 16 schools that had guidelines, auditors found that only 109 items (about 68 percent) met the districts’ guidelines. In addition, two districts did not comply with SED regulations by allowing the operation of vending machines selling candy prior to the end of the last scheduled lunch period.

DiNapoli’s audit also compared the districts’ competitive food and beverage offerings to the guidelines adopted by the Institute of Medicine. Auditors found that the school districts’ competitive foods and beverages met the IOM guidelines in only nine of the 200 items tested (about 5 percent).
“We appreciate Comptroller DiNapoli’s efforts to draw attention to the devastating human and economic cost of New York’s childhood obesity epidemic,” said Nancy Huehnergarth, director, New York State Healthy Eating and Physical Activity Alliance, a coalition of over 100 national, state and local health and consumer organizations. “It’s troubling that junk food continues to be readily available at so many of our schools, in spite of SED regulations and a local wellness policy requirement. With more than 25 percent of New York’s children classified as obese, state legislators, who have been unable to pass statewide school nutrition standards, should take notice.”

The audit made eight recommendations for school districts to work with SED to improve wellness policies, reduce the amount of junk food available to students and to adopt the IOM standards. Officials have agreed with the audit findings and provided details on implementing the recommendations.

This audit is part of a series of audits that Comptroller DiNapoli has performed to address the issue of childhood obesity in New York State. In December 2008, the Comptroller released a statewide audit that found 19 of 20 school districts examined did not provide physical education as required by law. In June 2009, the Comptroller released an audit that found junk food is routinely sold in New York City schools.

Click here for a copy of the audit.

Individual school district audits can be found at the following links:

Bethpage Union Free School District
Brentwood Union Free School District
Catskill Central School District
Gates-Chili Central School District
Hancock Central School District
Hudson Falls Central School District
Lansingburgh Central School District
LeRoy Central School District
Monticello Central School
New Rochelle City School District
New York Mills Union Free School District
Niskayuna Central School District
Port Jefferson Union Free School District
Warrensburg Central School District
Waterloo Central School District
Watervliet City School District
Waverly Central School District
Webster Central School District
Westbury Union Free School District
Wyandanch Union Free School District

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