Slimming Down Schools

Students at Wolf Trap Elementary participate in a food tasting party to help the Fairfax school district find healthy options for the district's lunch menus.Video: Nancy Donaldson/washingtonpost.comPhotos: Dayna Smith/The Washington Post
By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 21, 2008

On a tour through the cafeteria of Parklawn Elementary School in Alexandria, Penny McConnell points to the array of healthy foods on the day's menu: low-fat yogurt, baked chicken legs, fresh broccoli and cauliflower. As food services director for Fairfax County Public Schools, McConnell brags that the fresh green salads have become such a hit with students that teachers sneak in early to grab one before they sell out.

And then she sees him. The brown-haired boy unpacking the lunch he brought from home. Among the offerings: Gatorade and a 99-cent bag of Lay's potato chips, which by itself is 360 calories, 210 of them from fat.

"See?" she said. "This is what we're up against."

When Americans look for a scapegoat to blame for the growing childhood obesity epidemic, they often point to the schoolhouse. School officials said, however, that their efforts to promote good nutrition are thwarted by parents, who send children to school with oversized bags of chips and fight officials when they try to ban cupcakes.

Until a few years ago, the National PTA opposed federal efforts to regulate the sale of snacks and soft drinks on campuses for fear of losing the revenue. After Arkansas became the first state to require that students' body mass indexes be taken yearly, parents and some school officials argued that such measures harmed children's self-esteem and took time away from academics.

Montgomery County Council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) drew the ire of a local PTA for criticizing a fundraiser in which teachers worked at McDonald's. And when Fairfax County tried to do away with french fries at h igh schools last year, parents inundated the system with calls, even taking their case to the School Board. The fries were restored three days a week.

"It's not just schools," McConnell said. "We all need to be active players in this game in order to win."

But school officials, too, share in the blame.

For years, schools peddled cafeteria meals that were too high in fat and sodium. A series of reports documenting the staggering rise in childhood obesity raised alarm. The average weight for a 10-year-old boy rose to 85 in 2002 from 74 pounds in 1963, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. For girls, it hit 88 pounds, up from 77 pounds.

Now, many school lunch programs have gotten rid of the deep fryers or changed to less fattening oils. They offer salad bars, whole-wheat hot dogs buns and exotic vegetables and fruits such as kiwi and jicama. The pizza crust is made of whole-wheat flour, and the hamburgers are made with black beans. Low-fat milk and 100 percent fruit juices are in.

But even where the meals have become healthier, schools continue to undercut their efforts by also selling fries and doughnuts and allowing vending machines. Exclusive contracts with soft-drink companies garner multimillion-dollar payouts for schools. Officials say the dollars buy textbooks and pay SAT fees; critics accuse schools of ignoring health consequences.

Three decades ago, the Agriculture Department tried to ban chips, cookies and soft drinks from schools but was thwarted by courts and food companies. One court ruling found that the department did not have the right to regulate foods sold outside the lunchroom. The companies argued that people, not government, should decide what they eat.

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