LOS ANGELES - When Clif Bar & Co
. was devising its new organic energy bar for kids in early 2004, product developers at the Berkeley, Calif.-based health food manufacturer turned to California Senate Bill 19 for direction.
The "Z-Bar," launched in June 2004, was fashioned to meet the 2001 state law's recommended limits on calories from fat and sugar for snack food sold outside meals at schools.
Clif Bar stamped an "SB19 compliant" logo on the bar's wrapper and declared it the first snack to conform to the legislation, among the first state laws to address the childhood obesity issue.
The company created, trademarked and OK'd the logo with state officials. Now sold in California school vending machines plus food stores throughout the country, the snack bar with logo hailing California's legislation is a forerunner to the Oct. 6 announcement by former President Bill Clinton of an agreement with five leading food manufacturers on voluntary guidelines for healthier school snacks.
Clif Bar's full-time nutritionist and other experts added calcium, iron, foliates and whole grains to the Z-Bar and left out hydrogenated oil, high fructose corn syrup and other additives commonly found in school snacks. The whole grains and natural sweetener allows Z-Bar to be absorbed at a constant rate, which is more conducive to learning.
"It's a great all-around snack and will keep [students] going but isn't going to give them the spikes and drops of other snacks they're used to eating," said Ann Hamilton, brand manager for Clif Kids.
The company is riding the tide of efforts by public health advocates to eliminate fatty snacks and syrupy soda from school grounds. Sales of Z-Bar this year are expected to double last year's total, Hamilton said.
California has since strengthened SB19, which included a set of advisory guidelines on school food nutrition as part of a statewide pilot project. The project revealed that no middle or high school that adopted the standards lost revenue from selling healthier foods. Buoyed by that success, lawmakers in 2005 passed SB12, which makes the same parameters on calories and sugar mandatory. It goes into effect July 1, 2007.
Catherine Gavin, a registered dietician at The Pfeiffer Treatment Center
, a Chicago clinic that treats learning and behavior disorders with nutrient and biomedical therapy, applauded the Z-Bar's tie-in to SB19.
"I think it's very good that they're following the legislation - that they're actually listening," she said. "It's a positive that they're trying to produce better-quality foods for our children. It's just a shame that it took the obesity epidemic for this to actually hit home."
Still, food produced to government specifications doesn't sit well with consumer freedom advocates who warn of a first step towards a "nanny state" where personal choice and responsibility are inhibited.
"Having a senate bill stamped on a product - now I know it's not regulated or required and these companies should be able to market products however they want - smacks of a straight-up Orwellian, Big Brother situation," said J. Justin Wilson, a senior research analyst at The Center for Consumer Freedom
, a D.C.-based nonprofit coalition that seeks to protect consumer choice.
Wilson contends that bans on sweet treats can be counterproductive because they position the outlawed snack as a "forbidden fruit." Reports show a candy black market can develop - as it did in some Texas schools when that state instituted a ban, he said.
"It doesn't take a village of government regulators and bureaucrats to teach our children how to eat by banning substances outright," Wilson said. "But rather it takes responsible parents teaching children to make responsible decisions about the food they eat. And perhaps that means exposing them to the reality they'll face in the real world and outside the school system."
Connecticut Senate President Donald E. Williams
(D), who championed stringent nutrition guidelines similar to California's SB19 that were enacted this year in his state's schools, said the popularity of a food item modeled on state legislation is a marked improvement from the years when the junk food industry held sway over what could be offered in schools.
"[The Z-Bar] helps create awareness that legislation can result in moving the private sector, even to the extent where they will create products specifically to meet these healthier standards," Williams told Stateline.org .
While Connecticut's new law mandates that schools rid their cafeterias of soda and other empty-calorie drinks, it also provides incentives for schools to adopt voluntary healthy snack standards, including increased reimbursement for school lunches. Half of the state's schools have agreed to participate in the voluntary portion, Williams said.
He scoffs at suggestions students should learn good eating habits through exercising personal choice, and said schools assume some responsibility for student health and well-being.
"No parent is going to sit down at dinner time and say, 'Here's your choice: a chicken breast with broccoli, or ice cream and a Snickers bar. It's up to you as my child to exercise your good sense here.' That's not how parents operate," Williams said.
The prevalence of what public health advocates classify as unhealthy snacks and drinks has been a difficult trend to reverse.
Eighty percent of nearly 10,000 vending machine slots surveyed in a 2004 Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) report
contained candy, chips, cookies, snack cakes and pastries, which CSPI characterized as having "poor nutritional quality."
CSPI's June 2006 " School Food Report Card
" flunked 23 states for failing to enact any standards for schools on food sold outside meals beyond the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) policy, which CSPI called "outdated."
But the shift toward healthier food in schools has sympathetic ears on the state and federal level.
The Alliance for a Healthier Generation
- a joint initiative of the William J. Clinton Foundation and American Heart Association - announced an agreement this month with Dannon, Kraft Foods, Mars, PepsiCo and the Campbell Soup Co. to decrease the sugar, sodium, caloric and fat content of some of their food products sold in schools. In addition, Mars will introduce a whole new line of healthier snacks.
Activists also are pushing for a piece of bipartisan legislation (S. 2592/H.R. 5167) pending in both houses of Congress that would require the USDA to update its nutrition standards for food sold in school vending machines and school stores.
"They realize there has been very little done with the school food systems' guidelines and legislation since the late 1970s," said Hamilton of Clif Bar. "We know so much more about nutrition today than we did 30 years ago. And to have these really outdated guidelines for what we're feeding our children is just very, very sad."