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Smarts About Snacks

One local school struggles to provide healthier snack options for its students, while still supplying tasty choices.

Today, the snacks are a small part of the district's $60 million cafeteria business, and the experiment is successful and growing, Townsend said. The district has installed an additional 30 fruit juice machines at other schools.

Next year, the county plans to solicit a district-wide bid for a vending machine operator instead of allowing each school to negotiate on its own. As part of the contract, the school district would regulate the food sold. Townsend said he hoped to set up a revenue-sharing program with schools so principals would not lose discretionary funding.

"After many years of not talking about it and competing against each other, we're giving them a piece of the pie to provide kids with a healthy meal," Townsend said.

In arguing against machines with fresh and more healthful food, schools say perishables such as fruit and yogurt do not keep as well as preservative-laden snacks. If uneaten, the food is wasted and so are the potential proceeds.

Although some of McMahan's machines have adequate refrigeration, she hesitates to stock perishables unless she knows demand will be high.

"I have tried smoothie-like items and they do okay," McMahan said, "but I wish kids would eat more of that. It's a very new concept."

In California's Mount Diablo Unified School District, northeast of San Francisco, food service officials are working out the glitches in a new breed of vending machines serving such chilled breakfast foods as juice and bagels. In Prince George's County, Townsend is looking into machinery that can store and vend complete lunches, including such perishables as fruit.

There is also the notion that schoolchildren will not eat healthful foods.

"Kids, even adults, come to expect that certain foods are kid foods," said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "We tend to feed kids food that's heavily marketed because kids are familiar with them and easily accept them."

So instead of replacing the snacks, some schools across the region are restricting the operating hours of vending machines to limit consumption of junk food.

In a study by the Agriculture Department and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that surveyed 16 schools before and after improving nutritional standards, 12 increased revenue and four reported no change, indicating that students would eat more nutritious foods if available.

"Kids are making decisions that affect their long-term health," Wootan said. "And they're making these decisions without their parent being present. All food choices for kids at school should be healthy."

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