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Does “Healthy Schools” Go Far Enough?

December 11th, 2009 · No Comments · Posted in kids, Wellness

Yes to vending machines, no to sodas?

Yes to vending machines, no to sodas?

Sweeping new legislation aimed at the wellness of District youth has plenty to offer advocates of local food but it still leaves lots to chew on for those who would remove all junk food from the city’s schools.

The legislation, introduced this week by Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), would prohibit the sale of sodas in D.C. schools and require that students be given a minimum 30 minutes for lunch. But schools would still be free to station vending machines outside cafeterias and sell lots of other dubious foods, including chips, popcorn, doughnuts and cookies.

Trans fats would be prohibited according to nutritional standards scheduled to be phased in over a four-year period.

The bill also steers clear of a gathering movement to eliminate flavored milk from school lunchrooms. Chocolate, strawberry and other flavored milks are being called “soda in drag” because they contain only slightly less sugar than Coca-Cola. Natural fruit juices also would continue to be allowed, even though they are loaded with sugar in the form of fructose.  The legislation permits canned fruit packed in “light syrup.”

The bill takes aim at the salt content of school food. For instance, fruit and vegetable servings in school meals would be permitted to contain no more than 230 milligrams of sodium. However, the sodium content could more than double if those servings contain any one of a number of nutrients, such as fiber or Vitamin C.

By comparison, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has lowered the salt content of canned vegetables in its commodities food program to no more than 140 milligrams per serving.

The “Healthy Schools” act sets nutrition standards covering everything from total calories to be served at lunch to weekly portions of vegetables, meats and grains. High schoolers, for instance, would be served a minimum 5 cups of vegetables each week, including at least one-half cup of dark green vegetables, “orange vegetables,” and legumes. It’s not clear whether french fries will be included in the vegetable category. In the grains category, fully half the servings can be from refined, rather than whole, grains.

As the parent of a nine-year-old daughter, I have to say I would just as soon have all sodas and chips and sugary treats and vending machines removed from the city’s public schools. As any parent knows, if those things are available, kids will find a way to get their hands on them. At my daughter’s school, kids are rewarded for good deeds with local “dollars.” The “dollars” are redeemable at the school “store,” which sells an assortment of candy and other junk food.

The “Healthy Schools” bill addresses the availability of sugar and other junk by limiting portion size. “Competetive” foods, meaning those sold outside the federally subsidized breakfast and lunch meals, could contain “no more than 35 percent of its weight from sugars.” Does this mean no more candy? The new standards would allow: one and one-quarter ounces for “chips, crackers, popcorn, cereal, trail mix, nuts, seeds, dried fruit, or jerky”; one ounce for cookies; two ounces for “cereal bars, granola bars, pastries, muffins, doughnuts, bagels and other bakery items”; four fluid ounces for “frozen desserts, including, but not limited to low-fat or fat-free ice cream”; eight ounces for non-frozen yogurt.

Competitive foods could contain no more than 230 milligrams of sodium per serving, except “low-fat and fat-free dairy products,” which would be allowed 480 milligrams.

None of these requirements would apply to food available to school staff. or provided free by parents or sold or provided at sporting events. Foods that fall short of the requirements could not be used as “incentives, prizes or awards” in public schools.

Apparently none of this is written in stone, however. The plan, sources tell me, is to hold roundtable discussions on the bill with a variety of interest groups before the legislation even comes up for public hearing.

You can find yesterday’s post on the “Healthy Schools” legislation here.

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