D.C. Council launching campaign against childhood obesity

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 2, 2010

The D.C. Council plans to give final approval Tuesday to school nutrition and physical education standards that would be among the strictest in the country, mandating that low-calorie and low-fat meals be served to about 71,000 students and eventually tripling the time they are required to spend exercising.

School menus would favor a locally grown tomato over a Tater Tot, and the bill would ban trans fats and limit sodium and saturated fats. City public and charter schools would have to meet the federal "gold standard" for lunches, which requires that a different fruit and vegetable be served every day and that only low-fat or non-fat milk and whole grains be offered.

The schools would be encouraged to buy organic produce from farms in Maryland and Virginia.

The measure was inspired by first lady Michelle Obama's efforts to have children eat healthier foods and exercise more, and it would move breakfast from the cafeteria to the classroom in many D.C. schools to improve participation.

Officials said the program, estimated to cost as much as $23 million over four years, could be paid for through a citywide soda tax.

Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who sponsored the legislation, said she will propose a penny-per-ounce tax on soda, an idea that appears to have broad council support.

In a preliminary vote two weeks ago, the 13-member council gave unanimous backing to the Healthy Schools Act, without a soda tax attached. Members are rushing to give it final approval so that school leaders could implement the rules in the fall.

"Some states have different pieces of this, but I think this is probably the most comprehensive look at all of this anywhere in the country," Cheh said.

Ellen Valentino, executive vice president of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Beverage Association, called Cheh's soda tax proposal "nothing short of a money grab from the working families and citizens of the District of Columbia." She said her organization and retailers will mobilize to fight it.

"It's very regressive, and now is not the time to add new costs and taxes to working families' grocery store shopping cart bills," Valentino said.

A soda tax would generate $16 million a year, Cheh said. The bill would cost about $6 million a year, leaving $10 million for other city programs.

Food experts said the plan's ambitious aims will not be easy to achieve. Only 650 schools nationwide have achieved the U.S. Department of Agriculture gold-standard designation, which exceeds basic, and cheaper, federal school lunch nutrition standards.

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