Taking a hard line on snacks, soft drinks

THE BALTIMORE SUN

No candy, no brownies, no barbecue-flavored chips, no junk.

Moving to meet new state guidelines, school systems are cooking up tougher nutrition policies that - in Baltimore City and Howard County, at least - would do away with high-sugar, high-fat snack foods in vending machines and even at booster club concession stands.

The push for such nutrition standards is being driven by national concerns about childhood obesity - the percentage of children who are overweight has more than doubled since 1980, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But shifting to a healthier snack menu could come at the price of lost revenue from a la carte cafeteria items and vending machines. Howard County could lose $1.8 million in a la carte revenue and plans to increase lunch prices to recoup it.

Maryland school systems have until January to create formal guidelines for food that is sold outside of breakfast and lunch meals, which already must meet state nutritional standards.

Local districts can implement rules that are stricter than the state's guidelines, which say, for example, that a la carte items can contain no more than 9 grams of fat, 2 grams of saturated fat and 15 grams of sugar per serving.

"After taking a look at the kind of snack foods that would be ruled out by the state standards, there's not very much [left]," said Mary Klatko, Howard County schools' administrator of food and nutrition service. "Soft pretzels, very limited ice cream."

Howard County and Baltimore City are leading the nutritional crackdown, a path that one advocacy group ranks among the toughest in the nation. Carroll, Harford, Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties have enacted or are weighing more modest changes - but still plan to restrict junk food.

"We dropped Tastykake, Hostess Bakery, Snickers ice cream bars, and regular potato chips," said Karen Levenstein, food service director for Baltimore County schools, which hired a vendor to provide items that meet the new, healthier requirements. "They brought us a whole array of products that we did not know were out there."

But local officials can brace for a backlash.

"It gets kind of Big Brotherish," said Lynne Javier, the mother of a Howard High School football player, who works at the school's concession stand. "Taking away candy is not going to stop kids from being overweight."

Others are more sympathetic.

"Our biggest fundraiser is citrus fruit," said Sue Righter, a member of the Atholton High School booster club in Columbia. At her club's concession stand, "the trend has gone toward grapes and granola mix. I don't think [the nutrition policy] would be an issue."

The Baltimore City school system, which expects little revenue fallout from its new restrictions, has been moving for the past year toward a healthier menu, said Eric Letsinger, chief operating officer.

"We've even gone through the painful process of getting rid of a popular pizza ... that did not fit our standards," he said, referring to Prime Time Pizza, which is piled with meats and cheeses. "We believe there is a direct correlation between what we feed our children and their behavior."

Howard's proposed guidelines and Baltimore City's restrictions differ from other school districts because they extend beyond the school day.

The city's nutrition plan, approved this month, bans candy sales at all school functions as well as in vending machines. Howard's plan, scheduled to go before the school board for a vote Jan. 12, would do the same.

A ban on candy at sporting events is a good start, says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a health and nutrition advocacy group based in Washington. She said it "sends a bad message to have an event centered around physical activity and health to have kids sitting around eating candy."

Wootan would like tighter restrictions on sports drinks, iced tea and some fruit drinks - all of which are allowed in Howard's proposed policy. Such drinks "are nutritionally equal to sodas, they just don't have the bubbles," she said. "These other sugary drinks are just as likely to add calories to kids' diets."

Still, Howard officials say their proposal is aimed at addressing the problem of students grazing, or eating all day long, which, along with a lack of physical activity, contributes to childhood obesity.

"We need to get kids more active," Klatko said, although the policy does not set more stringent guidelines for physical activity. "If you are taking in more than you are expending, then that's when you gain weight."

School systems will have the opportunity to change their policies.

"It is considered a work in progress," said Carol Fettweis, a nutrition section chief with the Maryland State Department of Education. "These [school system] wellness committees will work on them over a period of time. They will be evolving."

Ciara Gissentaner, a 17-year-old senior at Howard High School, said people will have a tough time with the new regulations, especially at sporting events.

"A lot of my friends ... have hot dogs, candy, chips, pretzels, nachos and soda, of course," she said.

Jeff Javier, the 15-year-old son of Lynne Javier and a varsity wide receiver on Howard High's football team, said he will miss the option of buying desserts at lunch.

"Kids like eating snacks," he said, adding that his mother packs a small snack with his lunch. "I know it's not really healthy, but it's good."

William Bell, a 17-year-old senior at Howard High, also objects to an increase in the school lunch price, even in the name of good nutrition. County officials predict a $1.10 increase to high school lunch prices - pushing the meal cost to $3.10.

"That much for a lunch every day?" Bell said. "My parents aren't made of money."

Howard officials seemed unfazed.

"You are going to have some people that feel we did not go far enough, others will think we went too far," said Raymond H. Brown, the system's chief operating officer and a member of the task force that came up with the proposal.

Said Courtney Watson, chairman of the Howard County Board of Education: "We have to keep in mind why we are doing this ... so that our children can be healthy."

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

Nutrition plans

School systems in the Baltimore area are in various stages of meeting the state's school nutrition standards:

Anne Arundel County: The system is considering eliminating candy and soda at after-school activities. Secondary schools have some snack machines. A la carte items sold during school lunch do not include candy or soda.

Carroll County: Schools finalized a policy in October that limits students to purchasing one single-portion item at a time. But ice cream and water ice are sold during lunch, as are candy and soda at vending machines after school.

Baltimore County: The system has not yet set a policy on candy and snack sales after school. The implementation of the state's new nutrition standards resulted in smaller portion sizes, a 40-cent increase in lunch prices and the elimination of some a la carte items.

Baltimore City: Schools finalized a policy this month that prohibits the sale of candy at school-related events. The policy restricted the sale of some a la carte items. The system also got rid of candy in vending machines. Soda sales are restricted to after school.

Harford County: The system requested an extension from the state so that it could develop a plan that would meet federal and state guidelines. The system currently allows the sale of candy and soda in vending machines after school only.

Howard County: Its proposal mirrors the one recently adopted in Baltimore City, banning the sale of candy and limiting the sale of sodas in vending machines; eliminating certain high-fat, high-sugar a la carte items; and prohibiting sale of candy at after-school events.

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