Sugar Over Substance

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By Tara Bahrampour and William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 6, 2005

In the cafeteria line at an Arlington elementary school, most first-graders skipped the chef salad and the carrot sticks but grabbed up the purple packages of grape fruit snacks among the a la carte offerings.

Abby Raphael, PTA president at Arlington Science Focus School and the mother of two girls there, watched resignedly.

"It's candy -- it's not fruit," she said later, referring to the high corn syrup and sugar content.

Arlington schools, like many across the country, are struggling to find food that is nutritious and appealing to students. And parents are joining the effort, appalled by what their children can buy at lunch, such as Yoo-hoos and ice cream bars.

"I've told parents about this and their jaws drop," Raphael said, reading the fruit snack packet. "They have no idea about it, and why would they? It's not listed on the menu."

Food sold as part of a full lunch must include a certain amount of protein, vegetables and dairy products because it qualifies for federal reimbursement under the free and reduced-price lunch program for needy students. But the a la carte food meets much lower nutritional standards.

From a la carte offerings, high school and middle school students in Arlington can opt to make a lunch out of a large cup of french fries for $1.25, about half the price of a federally approved lunch. In some elementary schools, students can supplement their meals with an 11-ounce can of Yoo-hoo, with 180 calories and 28 grams of sugar, or a 6.75-ounce Sunny Delight, which has 100 calories and 22 grams of sugar but is only 5 percent fruit juice.

Even foods that count as entrees in the regular lunches can be heavy in fat and salt. A 3.5-ounce Smucker's Uncrustables pre-browned grillable cheese sandwich is 270 calories, with 11 grams of fat (6 of it saturated), and 1,020 milligrams of sodium, or 42 percent of the recommended daily allowance. An 2.8-ounce Uncrustables sandwich of peanut butter and grape jelly weighs in at 320 calories (150 from fat), with 16 grams of fat and 350 milligrams of sodium.

A la carte items are held to minimal federal standards -- the fruit juice in Sunny D, for example, is enough to qualify. "If there's any nutritional value at all, then it's okay," said Erik Peterson, a spokesman for the School Nutrition Association, which represents food service providers across the nation. "The classic example would be a Snickers bar. It has nuts in it, so it can be sold."

In Arlington, where parents have lobbied for more nutritious school food, the School Board plans to form a parent, student and staff advisory committee on cafeteria lunches and is considering hiring a nutrition consultant to vet food service operations.

"We all want to see whole grains. We all want to see vegetarian options. We all want to see lower salt and no trans fat, and have the a la carte menu much more accountable," county parent Linda Lee said.

Parents can show their children the fat and sugar content on the back of an item, she said, but that generally doesn't sink in as much as the bright, attractive front label. "First grade is a little early to be reading nutritional content but the perfect age to be marketed to," Lee said.

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