Making the Grade

Responding to concerns about the childhood obesity epidemic, state schools try to make sure their snack offerings pass the nutrition test.

March 02, 2005|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

When Xiancai Lin heads to the cafeteria at Albert Einstein High School in Kensington, he doesn't think of calories or grams of fat and sugar. "I just think, `I'm hungry,' " the 15-year-old freshman says.

On a recent school day, Lin purchases potato chips and a bottled milkshake from two vending machines, and a cheeseburger from an a la carte food line.

It is a typical meal for a teenager in the United States, but one with an invisible difference. At the start of the academic year, the Montgomery County school food program instituted nutritional standards that greatly reduced the fat and sugar content of snack foods sold in cafeteria a la carte lines and vending machines.

Lin's cheeseburger contains no more than 7 grams of fat. His potato chips are baked, not fried. And his milkshake contains limited amounts of fat and sugar.

With the Maryland State Board of Education's vote last week to raise recommended nutrition standards, districts across the state will be following the lead of Montgomery County.

Responding to the childhood-obesity epidemic, the guidelines advise elementary- and middle-school cafeterias to not sell food with more than 9 grams of total fat, 2 grams of saturated fat and 15 grams of sugar. Beverages are restricted to water, milk and juices. Fruit and vegetable juices must contain at least 10 percent juice and cannot exceed 12 ounces. Gatorade and other sports drinks cannot exceed 16 ounces.

State school systems have been anticipating the new standards, and some, including Baltimore County, plan to institute them in high schools also. Large school districts around the country, among them Philadelphia, Los Angeles, New York City and Boston, as well as the state of Connecticut, have approved similar measures, according to Erik Peterson, spokesman for the School Nutrition Association.

Kathleen C. Lazor, director of Montgomery County's school food program, didn't wait for the state board to raise the health bar. In December 2001, the surgeon general released a report that found 13 percent of children aged 6 to 11 years and 14 percent of adolescents aged 12 to 19 years were overweight in 1999 - nearly three times more than were overweight in 1979. The findings prompted Lazor to lead the effort to rewrite nutrition policies for her district's 192 schools, where nearly 100,000 students make a cafeteria purchase every day. "We sat down and [said,] `We need to make some changes,' " Lazor says during a visit to Einstein High's cafeteria, where 850 students have swooped in for the first of two noisy lunch shifts.

The systemwide menu, crafted to meet National School Lunch Program guidelines for reimbursable meals, didn't need tinkering, Lazor says. But the a la carte and vending machine offerings, which included chips in supersized bags, high-sugar drinks and candy bars, were held to minimal standards.

Across the country, cafeteria administrators are torn between raising revenue by meeting students' food demands and helping them understand the relationship between balanced meals and good health.

Items that help lunch programs break even or raise money for school-related causes, as well as snacks from home or a local convenience store, are known in school nutrition circles as "competitive foods."

Undermining education

These items "all compete with nutritious offerings through the National School Lunch Program," Peterson says. If schools sell snack foods with little if any nutritional value, then "nutrition education in the classroom and in the cafeteria will be undermined," Peterson says.

Tailoring policies for a la carte and vending machine items is "a local issue" that takes into account the different needs of urban, suburban and rural school districts, Peterson says. Nationally, the initiative has acquired additional incentive with a federal law that requires all school districts to establish a "wellness policy" by the start of the 2006--2007 school year. "Nutritional education is a big part of it," Peterson says.

To reform Montgomery County's snack-food policy, a task force composed of Lazor, principals, parents, administrators and occasionally students researched the issue and made recommendations that are slightly more stringent than those of the state board. After a pilot program in seven schools showed that revenues wouldn't plunge if vending machines offered baked rather than regular chips and other more healthful choices, the new standards were implemented in September.

The goal, Lazor says, was not to eliminate every item that might be considered unhealthful. It's all about balance and "making smart choices," she says. "We could ban everything that people perceive to be `junk food,' but are we teaching the kids?" Lazor says.

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