When the revised health and wellness policy for Howard County schools was up for discussion last spring, it was roundly criticized for not going far enough in encouraging students' health.

A year later and after a delayed vote, phased implementation and several additional changes, that policy was largely applauded by the public Thursday, March 13 at the Board of Education.

"I'm delighted to see the excellent progress made," said Barbara Wasserman, a member of the original committee tasked to revise the policy; but she added there were still a few minor changes to be made.

About a dozen people spoke at the public hearing with many, like Wasserman, pleased that the proposal now includes stricter nutritional guidelines for lunches and vending machines, and parents were pleased about a lift of a possible mandate banning less-healthy snack foods in concession stands. Still, many offered suggestions to slightly tweak the policy more.

Groups like the Horizon Foundation, Healthy Howard and the Howard County Health Department, along with the ecumenical group People Acting Together in Howard, asked schools to publish nutritional information on desserts and a la carte foods on a weekly basis; to create a standing review committee for menus and for a definition of the school day in the policy.

Since the policy was first discussed last spring, the Howard County Public School System has implemented a breakfast program at every school; created a uniform 30-minute recess at every elementary school; restricted food in student-accessible vending machines in the secondary schools to meet Institute of Medicine standards; and banned the use of food given as an award to students.

When the board votes on the policy in April, it will include the adoption of IOM standards as nutritional guidelines, efforts to incorporate more physical activity in the classroom and an official definition to the end of the school day — a topic initially in phase three, or the long-term planning.

Many at the hearing encouraged having a definition to the end of the school day, as that would determine when PTAs and boosters can start selling non-IOM compliant food in concession stands. A mandate that PTAs and boosters must sell IOM-compliant food is also absent in the new proposal — an initial suggestion that had caused much chagrin among parents.

Jessica Sokira, PTA Council executive board member, thanked the district for working toward the "continued evolution" of the policy, but said the council still had some concerns. While many concerns were the same as others at the hearing, the council is also asking for after-prom events to be excluded from the IOM standards, and for a change regarding when students can have candy in school.

Currently, principals have the discretion to allow candy to be given to students after the last lunch period for special events. That language is removed in the proposal, which some parent disagree with.

"We believe that each principal should have this discretion," she said. "... This will enable our parents to work with their principals and educators to develop what is appropriate for their children and schools. ... Not only is it important for our children to eat well, it is also important that they can see that special treats are possible while maintaining a healthy lifestyle."

Nearly everyone at the hearing also called for an improvement to the quality and taste of school lunches.

Running Brook Elementary School PTA President Amy Churilla, for example, included in her testimony photos used in the marketing of school lunches next to photos of the actual lunches "at an elementary school in Western Howard County." The changes were striking.

Amy Pagnotta, a Howard County parent, said changes to the school lunch were positive, but also cautioned that the menu should offer students more choices.

"These choices are what students look forward to, both on the tray and a la carte," she said. "We need to tread lightly, and make sure the changes are thoroughly reviewed for causation, prior to putting them into effect. Forcing children to take food they do not want doesn't solve anything. It creates extreme waste and puts the meal program in jeopardy. Eliminating snacks the children look forward to will also jeopardize the sustainability of the program."

Indeed, Churilla said, she has seen food go to waste as elementary school students toss what's left on their trays in order to buy a la carte snacks, and untouched fruit thrown in the garbage in favor of ice cream or cookies.

With the changes coming down the pipeline, however, Brandon Berry, a junior at River Hill High School, said that some students "feel their right of choice is being assaulted."

"(The changes are) causing a really bad reverse effect," he said. "Students are choosing to go to local fast food restaurants and the vending machines for lunch."

Berry also urged the board to improve the taste of school lunches, and said that those angered by the changes are "a small voice, but we are a voice."