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Schools vs. food trucks

New legislation in Sacramento that would ban food trucks and other street vendors from doing business within 1,500 feet of a school just doesn’t pass the taste test. The purpose of the bill is to prevent childhood obesity, but that is a large and complicated problem, and the state isn’t going to reverse obesity by controlling every aspect of a child’s or a teenager’s life.

Certainly, the government is responsible for the well-being of children while they’re in school. The Obama administration has rightly taken strong steps to ensure that school meals are more wholesome than they used to be. Now schools need to take those rules and figure out how to produce appealing food that students are willing to eat.

We’re not suggesting that food vendors aren’t part of the problem. But the reality is that the more gourmet food trucks are less likely to park outside a school. The vendors that are there are often selling out of strollers and coolers, and though some sell fruit, the big attractions are Flaming Hot Cheetos and sweetened drinks.

But will banning them force kids to eat healthily? If students don’t have vendors close to hand, there’s a good chance they’ll find convenience stores and fast-food outlets within a few blocks that also sell unhealthful food. If the bill were to pass, even medical marijuana collectives could be located closer to schools than food vendors — 600 feet.

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A 2007 UCLA study of a few Los Angeles elementary schools found that children rush to the vendors outside the gates when school lets out. But more often than not, they are accompanied by parents or caregivers who buy them items. Other adults drive up to purchase snacks, the study reported. In other words, adults are frequently deciding whether and what the children may eat, and it’s not clear why the state needs to step in to micromanage such decisions. Los Angeles, by the way, already bans vendors near schools, but the ban has limited effect, according to the study, because it’s seldom enforced. A new state law is unlikely to change that.

Research is mixed on whether proximity to junk food and fast food is a major contributor to obesity. A new study from the Rand Corp. finds no real link between obesity in California’s youngsters and their “food environments” — that is, close availability of fast food or supermarkets selling fresh food. But it didn’t look at the immediate temptation of mobile food vendors. Attempts at policymaking are running ahead of solid research on what works.

Elementary school students already aren’t allowed to leave campus for lunch, and if high schools want to steer students clear of junk-food lunches, they should require them to stay on campus during the school day. They also can ask parents not to give their children money for snack food. Once school is out of session, though, it’s time for the government to bow out of personal food decisions.


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