Guidelines target snacks at school

Optional junk food rules are backed by districts

some call for stricter ban

February 23, 2005|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,SUN STAFF

The state board of education approved yesterday new nutrition standards designed to vastly reduce the amount of junk food Maryland students eat at school.

The standards would prevent school cafeterias from selling snacks with more than 9 grams of total fat, 2 grams of saturated fat and 15 grams of sugar. That means cafeterias will stop offering many kinds of ice cream, cookies, cakes and chips.

The standards are optional and apply only to elementary and middle schools. But state officials said Maryland's 24 school district superintendents support the standards -- or standards that are more stringent. And some school districts, including Baltimore County, are planning to implement the standards in high schools as well.

"This is a big step," state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said in an interview after the vote. "We have too many children who are obese. We have too many children who are suffering from diabetes."

Although state officials did not know the obesity rate among Maryland children, they said obesity among adults in Maryland exceeds the national average.

Under the new standards, approved unanimously, vending machines in all schools that sell foods of "minimal nutritional value" -- mainly soda and candy -- would be turned off until after school hours. Schools are currently required to keep such vending machines off until after the end of the last lunch period. The board voted 8-2 to make the time extension optional but highly recommended.

Some state board members argued that the new standards don't go far enough. Schools would still be able to sell, during the school day, candy and carbonated beverages on a 14-page list of exemptions to the federally defined "foods of minimal nutritional value." The U.S. Department of Agriculture approved the exemptions, which include such items as Fruit Roll-Ups and Clearly Canadian beverages, after appeals from the manufacturers.

"I don't care what the USDA says because they're lobbied to death, obviously, by all of these organizations," said David F. Tufaro, a board member and former Baltimore mayoral candidate. "I don't want to be joined at the hip with USDA."

Tufaro said he would like to see vending machines with soda and candy banned around the clock because so many students spend time at school in the afternoons and evenings for extracurricular activities. Told that such vending machines are a significant source of revenue for schools, he responded: "Money's not an issue. You could sell drugs in schools, too. You'd make money."

In Montgomery and Washington counties, schools have already adopted variations of the new standards -- and have found little change in cafeteria revenues, according to state officials.

Del. Joan F. Stern, a Montgomery County Democrat, also said the new standards don't go far enough. She has introduced a bill in the General Assembly, co-sponsored by 23 other delegates, that would eliminate fried foods and require healthful food to be served at school activities by 2006. By 2010, it would impose strict portion sizes and limits on sodium, fat and sugar. Stern introduced a separate bill that would require schools to meet minimum standards for physical education.

Of the nutrition standards passed by the state board, Stern said: "They're a positive first step, but I think we can do more and should do more. ... We need to get a handle on this not only for the health of our children, but in order to get control over the health care costs in the state."

The new standards were developed over the past year and a half by a committee that included local school district food service directors and registered dietitians and nutritionists who work for the state. They have been endorsed by the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, as well as the state student councils association.

Under federal law, every school district in the country must develop a "wellness plan," with guidelines for nutrition education and physical activity by the start of the 2006-2007 school year. Maryland school districts must also submit a nutrition policy to the state by January.

State officials said the standards are designed to help school districts craft their nutrition and wellness policies.

Anticipating the new standards and trying to address the obesity epidemic, many school districts have started making changes. Baltimore high schools, for example, are serving french fries less frequently, state officials said.

New standards

Are optional, but state officials expect all districts to adopt them or stricter standards.

Apply to elementary and middle schools. Some districts might adopt them for high schools, too.

Eliminate snacks with more than 9 grams of total fat, 2 grams of saturated fat and 15 grams of sugar. This would include many kinds of ice cream and cookies.

Keep soda and candy machines turned off until after school hours.

SOURCE: Maryland State Department of Education

Beverages

The new standards would restrict beverages sold during the school day to:

Water

Noncarbonated flavored water with fewer than 20 calories per serving

Unflavored milk or soy milk

Flavored milk or soy milk with no more than 30 grams of sugar per 8-ounce serving

100 percent fruit and vegetable juices, not to exceed 12 ounces

Fruit and vegetable beverages with at least 10 percent juice and 100 percent of daily allowance of vitamin C, not to exceed 12 ounces

Isotonic beverages, such as Gatorade, not to exceed 16 ounces.

SOURCE: Maryland State Department of Education

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