Efforts to bring healthier foods into public buildings and schools may raise the question of whether the long arm of government is trying to dictate business practices and consumer choices.

It is true that Oregon, by law and by government advocacy, is encouraging people to make better choices about what they eat. The state does have an interest in protecting health - an interest that provides a firm justification for limiting the types of foods that can be sold in public buildings. But we also believe that the people who decide what items can be sold in school vending machines or in public buildings have a moral obligation to think about the habits - and potential diseases - they are promoting.

Improvements are slow

Our sister newspaper, the Portland Tribune, reported recently on the growing pressure to get the Oregon Commission for the Blind to provide healthier snacks in government office buildings. The commission for decades has been granted a monopoly to supply food service and vending machines in certain government office buildings, but it has been slow to move from salty and sugary snacks to healthier choices.

The Tribune also examined how well Oregon's 2007 Healthy Foods for Healthy Students law is working. Spot checks by our reporters show that not all schools are fully in compliance with the law. Some are continuing to allow the sale of items that were banned by the legislation. However, the law comes with no enforcement tools - and obviously it cannot prevent students from cutting class or using their lunch period to make a dash off campus for something they consider tastier.

We recognize that no law can control what foods people choose to consume. But it is important nonetheless for schools and public office buildings to do everything possible to place wholesome items in front of children and public employees. The societal and individual cost of eating unhealthy food is enormous, but Americans have yet to fully realize how dangerous their over-consumption of sugar and grease can be.

Helping people live better

An often-cited conclusion from a 2005 medical study is no less chilling for its repetition: Today's children might be the first generation in American history to have shorter life spans than their parents. That's because their diets lead to increased obesity and the maladies it causes, such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer. In Oregon by 2006, fully 25 percent of 11th-graders were considered overweight or at risk of becoming overweight.

In the past few years, the recession and subsequent budget cuts have left many schools with reduced physical education classes. The combination of poor diet and inactivity means that even more children are placed at risk.

A public war against a poor diet is therefore not an overreach of government, but an attempt to help people live longer and healthier lives and save large amounts of medical costs along the way. Public agencies cannot mandate what people put into their bodies, but the people who decide what will or won't be sold in schools or government buildings can assist the rest of us in making better choices.

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