Food, Obesity, and Regulation: Simmering Culture War Boils Over

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"I think that the government has more of a role in improving child nutrition in schools and other places where the government is feeding and cooking meals for them," said Wilson. He added, however, that if what they want isn't in the vending machines, kids will bring food from home or buy it outside of school. In other words, the government can't force kids to eat their vegetables.

"Creating an absolute ban [in vending machines] and selling carrot sticks and selling things that are absolutely healthy – they're kidding themselves," said Wilson.

NYU's Nestle said she understands the argument that children may seek out sugary or unhealthful food, but said schools have a responsibility to set standards and send a message about healthy eating to students.

"We are schools, we are an education, and if we are feeding you this, it is a normal part of society," Nestle said. "So if schools are feeding kids junk food, they are sending a message."

Balanced Meals Lead to More Alert Students

Nestle said she has visited many schools, and in those where kids eat what she called "adult food" – no sweets, no chicken fingers and no sodas – teachers report that students pay more attention, behave better, and don't get hungry at 3 o'clock because they ate a balanced meal. Nestle said she has also seen many schools feed children "garbage."

Responses to ABC News' blog post on the Healthy Hunger-Free Act show sharp divisions among Americans.

"Why does Congress, or Obama, or an unelected Czar always need to express statements like 'we won't enforce it here' or 'I promise not to apply it there?'" wrote one reader, "Ed." "If the laws are so unclear and patently ridiculous maybe just stop making them and let parents raise their children?!"

In response, another reader, "genhrules," wrote, "Ed "let parents raise their children?!" Well, because obviously the PARENTS aren't doing their job. And if parents are unwilling to use their common sense and be responsible parents, then maybe the schools (govt) should be a place where the child at least gets a fighting chance at learning what healthy means."

Nestle, the New York University professor, said the bill is not attacking parents.

"Anyone who's seen what kids eat in schools knows changes are needed," said Nestle. "This isn't about taking away parental control; it's about making it easier for kids to eat healthily in schools. I can't see what's wrong in that."

Caught in Bipartisan Crossfire

The Healthy Hunger-free Act has already been signed into law. The Food Safety Bill, however, has become a political football. The Senate passed it in November, but because of a technical flaw, it had to be sent to the House, which had to return it the Senate for approval one more time. Meanwhile, Sen. Mitch McConnell and 41 other Senate Republicans warned Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in early December that they would not let any legislation move forward until the Senate dealt with the Bush tax cuts.

The Senate's Monday vote to extend the Bush-era tax cuts could now clear the way for consideration of the Food Safety Bill later this week.

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