TRENTON-Public elementary and middle schools would be prohibited from selling soda and junk food under a package of measures approved Monday by a Senate panel taking aim at a growing epidemic of childhood obesity. The bills aim to restrict the amount of sugar, fat and salt children consume, at least during the school day. ``The most effective way to prevent obesity in our children is to teach them the right way to eat,'' said Assemblyman Herb Conaway, D-Burlington, a physician who co-sponsored a similar measure in the Assembly. The federal Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta report a rapid rise in childhood obesity, which puts children at higher risk of developing heart disease, diabetes and some cancers later in life. Similar proposals have been introduced in at least 17 states this year, according to the national Conference of State Legislatures. Policies are on the books in a few states, including California and Arkansas, while a proposal in Connecticut would extend the ban to high schools. In New Jersey, the bill that would impose the same food restrictions as the package of Senate measures has already cleared the Assembly and now goes to the full Senate for consideration. The New Jersey legislation would prohibit public school vending machines from stocking any item that lists sugar as its first ingredient, or anything that has more than eight grams of total fat, except nuts and seeds. The ban would be in effect until 30 minutes after schools closed for the day. The measures also require that vending machines in high schools be stocked with at least one healthy snack; home-baked goods sold at fundraisers would be exempt from the restrictions. Robert Earl, senior director for nutrition policy at the Food Products Association, a food and beverage industry trade association, believes the restrictive approach that states are taking will not improve children's health. ``We certainly believe school is the right environment for teaching students about developing lifelong eating habits,'' he said. ``We believe it is incorrect to apply guidance about diet to individual foods because that often eliminates very wholesome food products.'' The New Jersey Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, has lobbied for the legislation. ``There is a growing concern among educators that poor nutrition has a negative impact on the physical and mental health of our students and on their ability to learn,'' said NJEA spokeswoman Kathy Coulibaly. She said educators feel the legislation gives parents and students ``a good model'' for making healthy food choices. ``If it's not acceptable during school hours, it's something you should think about afterward,'' she said. Assemblyman Craig Stanley, D-Essex, said easy access to junk food exposes children to a litany of life-threatening diseases. ``Public schools need to be places where both healthy minds and bodies are created,'' said Stanley, who co-sponsored the Assembly measure. ``Sugary, fat-laden foods have no place in our schools.''