By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 29, 2009
It didn't seem like a radical idea at the time. First, Ginger Gray, the food service director for Kenton County, Ky., schools, took away fried potato chips, offering students baked versions instead. Next, she phased out fruit drinks such as Kool-Aid in favor of 100 percent juices. She considered serving baked french fries. But they got soggy and unappetizing fast. And there's one thing that every school food service director knows: You don't mess with the fries.
It was a calculated effort to encourage students to eat more healthfully. A registered dietician, Gray believes her job isn't just to feed students but also to teach good eating habits.
But there was a risk. The salty snacks and sugary drinks, sold in cafeteria a la carte lines and vending machines, were reliable moneymakers for the 17 schools in Gray's district, where one-third of students eat federally subsidized lunches.
But a funny thing happened. When the numbers came in, Gray found she was making more money, not less. With fewer junk foods available, more students opted for the traditional lunch line, where Gray offers items such as salads, submarine sandwiches and make-your-own tacos. At Simon Kenton High School, revenue rose 61 percent between 2005 and 2007 without a price increase for school meals.
The results in Kentucky could reverberate in Washington. As Congress moves to reauthorize childhood nutrition programs this summer, it is again taking up the issue of whether sugary sodas, chips and candy should be allowed in schools. Legislators have tried to limit junk food in schools since 1994. But each time the measures were blocked by powerful food lobbies, and conventional wisdom has long held that such snacks are a necessary evil because they provide key revenue to supplement the federal school-lunch program and help pay for sports and arts programs.
The result: Foods sold outside the lunch line currently are required only to have "minimal nutritional value," giving tacit federal approval to peanut M&Ms, Flaming Cheetos and Twinkies.
This year could be different. Bills have been introduced in both houses to mandate new standards. President Obama has declared childhood nutrition an integral part of health-care reform, a point first lady Michelle Obama emphasized in a speech at the White House garden.
"To make sure that we give all our kids a good start to their day and to their future, we need to improve the quality and nutrition of the food served in schools," she said on June 16.
Even the food industry is supporting tighter standards in the face of reports that obesity rates have tripled in children and adolescents over the last two decades. One study from the National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that one-fifth of the increase in teenagers' average body mass index was attributable to an "increase in availability of junk foods in schools." And in a year when the country faces a historic deficit, implementing standards may be an economical way to tackle childhood obesity.
Despite such support, history shows that efforts to establish new standards could fail yet again. The measure is likely to be included in the reauthorization of federal child-nutrition programs, which are scheduled to expire at the end of the year. The first step is clearing the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, where 10 Democrats have signed onto the bill as co-sponsors.
Kentucky is the seventh-fattest state in the nation, but it has been a pioneer in improving school food. In 2005, following the lead of food service directors such as Gray, Kentucky became one of the first states to impose strict standards for foods sold in cafeteria a la carte lines, school stores and vending machines, not just in the main lunch line as federal mandates require. The new regulations banned soda and sugary drinks, such as Hawaiian Punch, with more than 10 grams of sugar per serving. Twinkies and packaged cinnamon rolls were removed in favor of foods with limited fat, sugar and sodium.
"Everyone told us, 'You just can't do this. Schools won't survive. We won't have sports programs,' " said Anita Courtney, a consultant for child-nutrition programs who lobbied for the state law. "There was so much fear and in reality, it didn't make much difference."
Kenton County isn't the only district to benefit financially from cutting out junk food. In Hardin County, just south of Louisville, phasing out junk food helped push more students into the school meal program: 83 percent of students participated this year, up from 68 percent in 2000-2001. Meals are more profitable since the federal government kicks in money for every school lunch sold.
In California, where nutrition standards for competitive foods went into effect in 2007, a University of California at Berkeley survey of 20 schools revealed that revenues at 65 percent of schools increased more than enough compensate for the loss of sugary and salty snacks.
Washington politics will have as much to do with a passage of new standards as new evidence emerges in support of restricting unhealthful snacks. Food and beverage companies including Mars and the American Beverage Association support federal standards, which have not been updated in 30 years. Indeed, the association is implementing voluntary standards that cut calories and portion sizes and ban full-calorie soft drinks.
"We recognize that childhood obesity is a complex problem that will take comprehensive solutions. And our industry is stepping up to do our part," said Kevin Keane, senior vice president of public affairs at the beverage group.
It's a radical change from 15 years ago, when industry lobbyists opposed even voluntary standards. Several factors have fueled the shift. For one, childhood obesity rates have reached crisis levels.
More practically, large food corporations now have far broader portfolios. So for example, even if Coca-Cola cannot push Coke, it can sell Dasani water, VitaminWater and Powerade. Companies also would rather deal with national standards than patchwork of state and city regulations, which make it difficult for companies to standardize nutritional content and serving sizes.
Only 12 states, none in the D.C. area, have comprehensive rules for foods sold outside the lunch line. In a 2007 school food report card, the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest graded the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia C, D-plus and D respectively for their school nutrition policies.
Some lobbies still oppose federal standards. The Alexandria-based National School Boards Association argues that local communities should make decisions about what children are fed in schools. Some public health advocates worry that weaker federal standards could undercut some more stringent state and local regulations.
If Congress mandates new standards, they might look like Kentucky's. The Agriculture Department official charged with writing new rules would be Undersecretary for Food and Nutrition Services Janey Thornton. Before arriving in Washington, she served as nutrition director for schools in Hardin County, Ky.