Thursday, February 02, 2006

The School Food Wars: Dispatches From Arizona

There are going to be some changes soon in what kids are permitted to eat in Arizona's public schools:
The state Board of Education has come up with its final list of banned soft drinks and junk foods at elementary and middle schools around Arizona.

The schools are supposed to convert their snack bars and vending machines to serve healthful snacks and drinks by July, which nutrition officials in Yuma County say is plenty of time as they've been making improvements to their cafeteria menus for some time.

Fried potato chips and high-fat pastries are definitely out. But before issuing its rules Tuesday, the board turned to Attorney General Terry Goddard for an opinion on one item: diet soft drinks.

There was disagreement among staff and an advisory panel over whether to allow diet soft drinks in middle schools.

Goddard determined that because the junk-food law required the state to meet or exceed federal nutrition standards, no carbonated beverages were permitted.

"Those are things we've been moving toward for years," said Karen Johnson, director of child nutrition programs for Yuma Elementary School District 1. "Kids won't see big changes. We've been meeting guidelines and those nutritional standards for a long time."

Johnson and Jane Johnson, who runs the nutrition programs at Crane School District, both said there were no surprises in the guidelines and the changes will mostly apply to snack bars, a la carte items and vending machines.

"Knowing it's (been) coming for a long time, (we've been selling) baked chips for about a year," Jane Johnson said. "We haven't deep fried anything for at least 10 or 12 years ... We went to 1 percent milk probably about that long ago, too. We have a fruit and veggie bar every day. We've added more fiber."

The Education Department spent months finalizing the nutrition guidelines and relied heavily on an eight-member committee that includes a parent, a school nutrition director and representatives from the food and beverage industry.

State officials first recommended that sports drinks such as Gatorade be banned but agreed to allow them in middle schools.

Dairy farmers worried that they would be limited to selling only 1 percent milk in schools, which they feared would cause kids to drink less milk and cut into sales. State officials agreed to allow 2 percent milk but encouraged 1 percent and no-fat.

With the exception of vending machines, both Crane and District 1 have already switched to skim or 1 percent milk in their schools.

Officials wanted to ban all pastries but relented after company officials pointed out there were lower-fat versions of the popular snacks.

Baked goods such as muffins and doughnuts can still be sold but are limited to 3 ounces and must meet the new calorie, fat and sugar guidelines. Snack sizes are limited to 300 calories and cannot have more than 35 percent of their calories from fat.

Karen Johnson said one of the more significant changes is the increase in fiber, but she expects the food manufacturers to add fiber in order to comply.

"With manufacturers, they're really aware of these changes and making those changes to meet the standards," she said. "We're not going to have any problem finding items that meet standards, and I feel we're almost there."

Karen Johnson said nutrition guidelines are beneficial, but just one piece of the puzzle.

"Good nutrition doesn't stand alone," she said. "We have to teach kids what's good for them, there has to be some type of education, and of course physical education. It really is a three-legged stool ... We're more than happy to meet the standards, but we (also) want to make sure our students are still active."

The state likely hasn’t heard the last of the junk-food controversy.

A separate bill introduced earlier this year in the House would extend the ban to high schools.

“If parents want their children to eat unhealthily, nothing stops them from putting unhealthy foods or beverages in the lunch box,” said Tom Horne, state superintendent of public instruction. “But most parents want their children to eat healthy foods and resent it when the schools undermine them with unhealthy foods in the vending machines. The legislation passed last year, combined with these standards, will support parental choice with respect to the health of the children. We hope that the Legislature will extend this support of parent control to the high schools this year.”
As the superintendent said, both parents and kids do have a choice. Students can eat just about whatever they want as long as they bring it from home in a brown-paper bag.
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