(April 14) Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, is at it again, and this time he’s brought allies to the fight against childhood obesity.

Harkin, the ranking Democrat of the Senate Agriculture Nutrition and Forestry Committee and an outspoken critic of both the food industry and the nation’s health care system, introduced legislation April 6 aimed to improve children’s eating habits and health.

Harkin had bipartisan support while introducing the Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act, which would update federal nutrition standards for snack foods sold in schools. The federal government spends $8.5 billion a year on school breakfast and lunch programs, but Harkin said those programs were undermined by unhealthful choices available in school stores, snack bars and vending machines.

“Many American kids are at school for two meals a day,” Harkin said on his Web site. “But instead of a nutritious school breakfast and lunch in the cafeteria, they are enticed to eat Cheetos and a Snickers Bar from the vending machines in the hallway. Junk food sales in schools are out of control.”

Meals must meet nutritional standards in order for schools to receive federal funding, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture has had limited authority to set standards for food sold outside school breakfast and lunch programs.

“This would close that loophole,” said Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of nutrition and health for United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, Washington, D.C.

Maureen Knightly, a spokeswoman in Harkin’s office, said the proposal’s two main goals are to redefine “foods of minimal nutritional value” and make them unavailable during the school day.

“USDA hasn’t updated their nutritional standards in 30 years,” Harkin said. “Since that time, we’ve learned a lot from the scientific community about the risks that a poor diet has down the line for children and adolescents.”

Harkin, who authored the school fruit and vegetable snack program, was one of four legislators who requested a 2005 report by the General Accounting Office that found nearly nine of 10 schools sold competitive foods in the 2003-04 school year. Competitive foods can be healthful but usually are junk foods such as candy.

If enacted, Harkin’s proposal would require USDA to update and implement standards within 180 days and would require the agency to consider:

  • The positive and negative contributions of ingredients in the diets of children (including calories, portion size, fat content and added sugars);

  • The relationship between certain foods or ingredients and obesity and chronic illnesses;

  • Recommendations from authoritative scientific organizations concerning nutritional guidelines.

Arlen Specter, R-Pa.; Dick Durbin, D-Ill.; Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.; Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.; and Lincoln Chaffee, R-R.I., co-sponsored the Senate measure. Identical legislation was introduced in the House of Representatives by Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., and Chris Shays, R-Conn.