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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

Health advocates say the situation is beginning to change, some. Fairfax County was among the first school systems in the country to limit sales of soda and snack foods. Now others, including Montgomery and the District, have followed suit.

Critics say those schools are the exceptions. "Most kids still go to school in schools where there's junk food," said Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a leading health watchdog. "If it were only a cupcake once a month, if it were only the snacks at after-care. . . . It's just that it all adds up to so much junk food, which then adds up to childhood obesity."

Parents and educators differ on how aggressively to regulate what children eat. Some parents see no harm in an occasional pizza party, but others want an all-out ban on cupcakes. Some Montgomery elementary schools still reward students with free pizzas for being good readers, while students at KIMA Public Charter School in the District staged a lunchroom boycott until they were offered a healthier menu.

Health advocates insist schools can move to more healthy offerings without dire financial consequences. Eye appeal and eatability of lunches are key. "All of us eat with our eyes," said Becky Domokos-Bays, food services director for Alexandria public schools. "Kids gravitate toward fruit. Veggies are a little harder sell."

There is evidence to back the advocates: A 2001 study at the University of Minnesota found that students would buy healthy food items if they cost less than unhealthy items. The Vista Unified School District in Oceanside, Calif., put milk, juice and water at eye level and moved soft drinks and sports beverages to lower levels to influence buying habits. They charged less for the healthy beverages. By the second year of the experiment, when they phased out soft drinks from the machines altogether, there was very little outcry. Most important, vending revenue increased.

In Philadelphia, a two-year experiment by researchers at Temple University to examine whether nutrition education combined with a change in the types of food sold at five elementary schools lowered childhood obesity rates showed extremely promising results. At the schools that banned soft drinks and candy and rewarded healthy eating with raffle tickets, children were less likely to gain weight than counterparts at other schools. Over the two years, fewer children were becoming overweight, and the number who had been overweight dropped. At schools that did not participate in the experiment, the number of overweight children increased.

More than a decade ago, when Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) proposed banning vending machines from campuses, some of the harshest criticism came from the school community. Today, such groups as the PTA are fighting alongside Harkin.

"You gotta walk the talk," National PTA President Jan Harp Domene said. "You can't just be out there for fundraising without considering" the impact on children.

Domene said PTA officials now require the fundraising vendors who attend the national convention to offer healthy fundraising alternatives in addition to candy and cookie dough.

Still, the conflict between dollars and health remains evident. In Harkin's most recent effort to regulate "competitive" foods on campuses, the PTA supported the regulations. But its members fought to include an exemption for school-approved fundraisers, such as those sponsored by booster clubs -- and groups such as their own.

Tomorrow: In Metro {vbar} Pediatricians are baffled. {vbar} In Business: A longtime culprit makes an "epochal" shift. In KidsPost {vbar} "The Amazing Food Detective."

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