Maryland students accustomed to filling themselves with french fries, ice cream and candy in place of school lunches might soon need to change their eating habits.
With national concern about childhood obesity at an unprecedented high, the state Board of Education is set to vote next month on new nutritional standards for a la carte and snack foods sold in school cafeterias.
Under the proposed standards, a snack could have no more than 9 grams of total fat, 2 grams of saturated fat and 15 grams of sugar. In practical terms, that means cafeterias would no longer sell many kinds of ice cream, cookies, cakes and chips, although school district officials have found some brands that fit the bill.
The state proposal recommends those standards for only elementary and middle schools. But some school districts, including Baltimore County, are planning to implement them in high schools as well.
Catherine Marner, a senior at Milford Mill Academy in Baltimore County, said that's a good idea.
"Kids are getting too big," the 17-year-old said. She added, though, that high school students can go elsewhere to get their favorite junk food.
The standards would be optional, but state officials said they expect all of Maryland's 24 school districts to implement them or standards that are even more stringent. They would take effect next school year.
In all schools, vending machines that sell foods of "minimal nutritional value" - mainly soda and candy - would not be turned on until after school hours. Currently, state standards prevent such vending machines from being turned on until after the end of the last lunch period.
Each school district would also be required to develop a nutrition policy.
"All these things are very good first steps," said Bridget Mugane, a Columbia lawyer and advocate for healthier cafeteria food in Maryland schools who serves on the Howard County Horizon Foundation Task Force on Obesity. Nevertheless, she said, "we need to go much farther. We need to have a sweeping overhaul of school foods. ... We should be teaching how to eat for a lifetime."
But as schools change their cafeteria menus, they must weigh what's good for kids against what kids will actually eat. Keeping meals affordable and culturally diverse are also factors.
In making such major changes, "we're apprehensive," said Cathy Haymaker, operations supervisor for the Baltimore County school district's office of food and nutrition services. "We don't want angry kids."
She said vendors have assured her they can offer popular products that meet the proposed standards.
In Montgomery and Washington counties, schools have adopted variations of the proposed state standards - and have found little change in cafeteria revenues, according to Mary Clapsaddle, assistant state superintendent of business services.
"There'll be little grumblings from students," said Marla Caplon, a supervisor with the Montgomery County school district's division of food and nutrition services. "But for the most part, the kids buy what's there. ... We're definitely driving them in the right direction."
Added Tracy Fox, a dietitian who chairs the Montgomery County PTA's health committee and the county's School Health Council: "I did hear at the end of the last school year, when these changes were being debated and discussed, that there were some students who were upset, going to riot. Then an amazing thing happened - summer - and they came back to school, and there haven't been any significant complaints since."
Starting this school year in Montgomery County, all snacks except nuts that are sold in cafeterias must have no more than 7 grams of fat. Other than water, beverages can't be larger than 16 ounces. Fruit beverages must have a minimum of 20 percent juice, a required percentage that will rise over time, and sports drinks such as Gatorade can only be sold next to gyms, not in the cafeteria.
Heavy on fat
In anticipation of the new standards, other school districts have also begun making changes.
In Howard County, secondary schools this year stopped serving four products made by the Tastykake Co., a manufacturer of cupcakes, doughnuts and other treats, according to a report to the Howard school board. All schools stopped serving four products made by the Jack & Jill Ice Cream Co., the report states.
A single-serve Tastykake chocolate cupcake has 12 grams of fat, 2.5 grams of saturated fat and 35 grams of sugar, according to the company's Web site. Even a low-fat raspberry coffeecake cupcake, offered in a smaller size, wouldn't meet the proposed standard: It has 21 grams of sugar.
Howard County middle schools have stopped offering a la carte fries. They have introduced 100 percent fruit-juice smoothies to appease upset pupils. Elementary schools have limited the portion sizes of Little Debbie snacks.
In Baltimore County, officials planning for next school year are entering into contracts for food and drinks that would meet the proposed nutrition standards, Haymaker said.
This school year, Baltimore County schools began offering baked chips in addition to fried chips. They started serving french fries, made in vegetable oil, less frequently and in smaller portions.
To stop students who buy multiple orders of fries and eat nothing else, Haymaker said, the school district is considering the elimination of a la carte fries - selling them only with a full meal that on balance meets nutrition standards - or allowing students to purchase only one order of fries a la carte.
Loch Raven High School has set up a vending machine with healthy snacks. Haymaker said the baked pita bread chips in various flavors have been a hit.
Meghan Antkowiak, 16 and a Loch Raven sophomore, said that when the new machine was installed, "I was totally excited. ... They have dried-fruit snacks, sunflower seeds, dried chips, chips with low fat and no trans fat - whatever that is - baked Cheetos, stuff with low carbs."
Kingston R. Holcomb, 17 and a senior at Milford Mill Academy, said students will eat whatever schools offer.
"It's good to be health-conscious," he said. "As long as it's not nasty and the students won't buy it, it'll be fine. Usually students just want to get something in their stomachs."
Sun staff writers Anica Butler and Hanah Cho contributed to this article.
* Apply to elementary and middle schools. Some districts might adopt them for high school, too.
* Eliminate snacks with more than 9 grams of fat, 2 grams of saturated fat and 15 grams of sugar. This would include items like ice cream and cookies.
* Take effect in the next school year.
* Keep soda and candy machines at all schools off until after school hours.
* Require each district to develop a nutrition policy.
SOURCE: Maryland State Department of Eduction.