Board adopts wellness policy

Unanimous vote OKs rules that restrict the sale of high-sugar, high-fat snacks and drinks during school

March 26, 2006|By JOHN-JOHN WILLIAMS IV | JOHN-JOHN WILLIAMS IV,SUN REPORTER

Howard County school officials are trumpeting the health benefits of their new school and nutrition policy, even as they promise to fine-tune that policy as needed over the coming year.

The policy - approved on a unanimous vote last week after months of sometimes-rancorous public debate - essentially eliminates the sale of high-fat, high-sugar snacks and sodas during the school day and encourages staff to incorporate physical activity when possible into classroom instruction.

But it also comes with a cost: System officials project the loss of $1.8 million in revenue from snack sales. As a result, officials have predicted a $1.10 increase to high school lunch prices, pushing the meal cost to $3.10.

Still, board members see the policy as a step in the right direction.

"We got rid of the junk food during the school day," said Joshua Kaufman, the school board chairman. "That will have a real impact on our students. We also made a commitment to improve physical activity, the content of our food and the quality of the nutritional curriculum so that students have the opportunity to make better choices."

For months, the public has been polarized on the topic. Some have favored a more rigid policy that would end the sale of candy and limit the sale of soda during and after school. Others said regulating food and drink would affect fundraising, teaching and morale.

Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin said the policy, which goes into effect July 1, will not satisfy everyone, but he said "the intent was to provide nutrition and physical education in school."

To make the policy work, the system plans to hire an outside expert to evaluate the types of foods and beverages offered in the schools, the physical education offerings and the exposure to physical activities.

School board member Courtney Watson said the aim is to leave open the possibility that the policy could change in the future as needed. "You don't want to change the culture too much and restrict traditional activities," she said.

The new policy, enacted to comply with state and federal regulations, will eliminate the sales and distribution of food and beverages deemed to be of minimal nutritional value during the school day. It also will prohibit the sale of soda at the primary-grade level and limit the amount of soda sold in vending machines at the secondary-school level.

The only beverages that can be sold in school cafeterias during the school day are water, flavored water, flavored and unflavored milk, 100 percent fruit juice and vegetable juice, and fruit and vegetable juice beverages containing at least 10 percent fruit and vegetable juice with a specified level of vitamin C.

Sodas, iced teas and sports beverages can be sold at the secondary level in vending machines only after the school day ends. And those beverages may make up no more than 50 percent of the vending machine selections.

Cousin said the school system will experiment with eliminating soda in secondary schools, although the sites to be used in the pilot have not been determined.

During a nearly two-hour debate on the policy, board member Mary Kay Sigaty said she had a problem with the system allowing iced tea and sports beverages to be sold during the school day.

"When I look at the label on the side of them, there is nothing but processed sugar and salt," she said. "I don't know how they are different from soda."

Board members also spent a good deal of time discussing the distribution of food during the school day.

According to the policy, no food or beverages can be sold or given without charge to any students from 12:01 a.m. until the end of the last lunch period, except through the School Food and Nutrition Service Department.

Sigaty said this aspect of the policy would hurt events such as honor roll breakfasts, where PTA members provide food to students. But Mary Klatko, administrator of food and nutrition services, said the school system policy already prohibits such practices.

That didn't sit well with Watson.

"What's the point of the wellness policy?" she asked. "We're just taking everything out of it!"

The board also added language to the policy to address food allergies and physical activity, two areas that received attention during the board's public hearing in December.

The policy says principals and teachers should ask that parents and other individuals avoid bringing food to class that might cause allergic students to have a reaction.

In the coming year, officials will consult with other school systems and look at how each has adjusted to new nutrition and fitness policies.

"We're also going to look at the financial impact of this policy," Cousin added.

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

FOODS AT SCHOOLS

Howard County's newly adopted wellness through nutrition and physical activity policy limits the high-fat and high-sugar foods and beverages during the school day. Among the requirements:

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