Monday, May 23, 2005


If it's popular it must be bad

Is it time to kill the cheese zombie? That's the recommendation of well-meaning lawmakers in California. Concerned about the epidemic of obesity among school children, they have backed legislation to boot junk food off school campuses. The "zombie," a cheese-filled bread snack that has been popular at some East Bay schools for years, might be considered for extinction. Sounds like a great idea, doesn't it? And it is, except for one problem. It doesn't work. At least so far.

The dirty little secret of school lunches is that all that awful stuff -- the cookies, burgers, potato chips, pizza and soda pop -- is paying the freight for those healthy school lunches we all say we want. Kathleen Corrigan, who has been food services director for the sprawling Mount Diablo School District in Contra Costa County for 20 years, knows that students in her cafeterias are making a lunch of a Coke, a slice of pizza and two cookies. "Yeah, and I hate it," she says. "In an ideal world, I would sell lunches only. But it is becoming harder and harder to make our budget. The fact is, the snacks are what keep our full meals reasonable."

Her district isn't the only one affected by the trend. In 2000, the Public Health Institute conducted a school-lunch survey of 345 California high schools and found that a la carte items such as pizza, hamburgers, submarine sandwiches, French fries, chips, cookies, yogurt, bagels, ice cream and sodas accounted for 70 percent of all food sales at 71 percent of school districts surveyed. Amanda Purcell, who conducted the survey, said last week that she doubted there would be much difference today. "In high schools, a la carte is the bulk of the sales," Purcell says. "I don't think we have seen a significant change in how food service does business. They feel they need to sell those high-fat, junky things to keep the meals afloat." Mount Diablo's Corrigan is trying to find solutions to the problem, but Purcell says others are just looking at the bottom line. "Quite frankly, there are a lot of people who would continue to do business as usual," she says. "It is not hard to sell candy to children."

Not that there aren't some hopeful signs. A survey released last month by the UC Berkeley Center of Weight and Health said kids tended to switch to better food sources when junk food was eliminated -- to the point that food service revenues actually increased. That's great. But others point out that students at many high schools can leave campus for lunch or have many more options for what they can bring from home. Also, the majority of the 16 California schools in the Cal survey had large numbers of students who qualified for higher reimbursement rates for lunches. Without a closed campus, or extra reimbursement, the task is very difficult. Consider, in the last two years, Corrigan has made some healthy revisions in the snack menu. She changed to low-fat potato chips and "eliminated some ice cream items we just couldn't justify." The result? "Our income for a la carte items dropped $140,000," Corrigan says.

More here


WE know what's good for you

Lawmakers want to make sure Connecticut students aren't part of the Pepsi Generation. Connecticut is on the verge of adopting the most far-reaching ban in the country on soda and junk food in public schools, in an effort to curb rising rates of childhood obesity. Similar but weaker proposals have been introduced in at least 17 states this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Policies are on the books in a few states, such as Arkansas and California.

Advocates say Connecticut's ban would be the strongest because it is so broad, applying to all grades and all school sites where food is sold. "Connecticut would be the first state to apply those standards to high schools," said Margo Wootan, director of nutritional policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "Most of the recently passed policies are limited in that they only apply to elementary and middle schools."

Last week, lawmakers in the House voted 88-55 after an eight-hour debate to pass a law banning soda and junk food in cafeterias, vending machines and school stores. It also requires 20 minutes of physical activity outside of gym for children in kindergarten through fifth grade. The bill heads to the Senate next week where leaders expect it to pass. "By no stretch of the imagination does it solve all the problems, but it's very important that we provide the right models in our schools," said Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr. The topic was one of the most contested issues of the session. The lengthy debate outlasted discussions about the death penalty and a bill that allowed Connecticut to grant same-sex civil unions. Lawmakers confessed their personal weight problems and many lawmakers openly drank soda during the debate.

Soft drink companies lobbied fiercely against the bill, and many high schools worried they would lose money if sodas disappeared. In the end, weary legislators allowed a compromise that permits high school sales of diet soda and sports drinks on a limited basis. "Diet sodas, while not particularly good for children, have zero sugar content and therefore do not contribute to the weight problem that we're trying to address," said Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford.

Opponents argue that the legislation crossed a line, implementing a "Big Brother"-style mandate better handled by local school districts. Rep. Lawrence Cafero, R-Norwalk, said the legislation wouldn't affect the obesity crisis when school menus offer selections such as cheeseburgers, pizza, chicken nuggets and nachos. "How many of you will stand there and say, 'If you have your share of sloppy joes and quesadillas, you're not going to put on a few pounds?'" Cafero said.

Many state schools have already taken steps on their own. Last year, New Haven Public Schools decided to make Nathan Hale Elementary School junk-free, taking soda out of vending machines and serving baked versions of french fries and tater tots. The initiative expanded this year.

Some are unconvinced the initiative is the right way to approach the obesity problem. Rep. Konstantinos Diamantis, D-Bristol, said he weighed 240 pounds as an eighth-grader and couldn't play sports because of weight limits. He lost the weight through willpower. "There's a host of things that go into it," he said. "Banning a particular food isn't going to teach a child a proper form of nutrition."

More here

No comments: