D.C. Council launching campaign against childhood obesity

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 2, 2010; A01

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.

Montgomery County, for example, recently sought the designation for some of its schools, but the USDA turned it down because the schools were serving whole grains only three days a week instead of five days, a school spokeswoman said. Fairfax County has taken steps to introduce more whole grains and fresh vegetables into school menus, but the county has not earned the USDA gold designation for any of its schools. Both counties also limit the sale of soda and snack foods.

The District's childhood obesity rate is one of the highest in the nation. Last year, the D.C. Health Department found that 43 percent of students enrolled in city public schools were overweight or obese. District schools meet only the basic USDA guidelines for school nutrition, although some charter schools exceed those standards.

Cheh's proposal would replace reduced-price lunches with free lunches and would require charter and public schools to offer free breakfast. In addition, schools would be encouraged to offer filtered drinking water and to make use of open space for gardens and compost piles.

When drafting the bill, Cheh pulled together dozens of national and local health and fitness experts. The effort has won the support of chef Alice Waters, a pioneer of "California cuisine" and a leading proponent of organic cooking.

"When this legislation takes effect in Washington, D.C., it will signal best practices to all of us and pave the way for our nation to follow," said Waters, owner of Chez Panisse Restaurant and Cafe in Berkeley, Calif.

The measure would establish mandatory guidelines on caloric intake at breakfast and lunch, effectively forcing smaller and healthier portions. In elementary schools, breakfasts would have a required range of 350 to 550 calories, and lunches would have a range of 450 to 600 calories. In high schools, the required range would be 450 to 600 calories for breakfast and 750 to 850 calories for lunch.

"This is the beginning of a very, very powerful and important discussion in America on the role of food," said Robert Egger, president of the D.C. Central Kitchen and former head of the Mayor's Commission on Nutrition. "It's not just gas for the body. What we feed our kids is going to determine if they are happy, productive taxpayers or sick, unhappy taxpayers that could potentially cripple our nation."

To enforce the standards, the city would establish a central facility to "prepare, process and store" the food and, when applicable, to grow it on-site.

To encourage schools to offer organic and locally grown foods, the District government would reimburse schools an extra 5 cents per lunch to comply with a "farm-to-school" provision.

"It's setting an example for what the U.S. needs to do nationally," said Andrea Northup, coordinator of the D.C. Farm to School Network for the Capital Area Food Bank, noting that many officials nationwide complain that government reimbursement rates are too low for schools to afford healthier foods.

Another key component of the legislation would require elementary schools to serve free breakfast in the classroom in schools with moderate or high concentrations of poor children. Advocates say poor children are stigmatized by having to rush to the cafeteria for breakfast.

Alex Ashbrook, director of D.C. Hunger Solutions, called in-classroom breakfast a possible "magic bullet of school reform" because some studies link a good breakfast to increased test scores and fewer visits to the school nurse. "If you want to do an intervention that will pay off, make sure every kid is fueled with a good breakfast," Ashbrook said.

The new regulations would replace reduced-price lunches with free lunches as a way to remove any cost barrier to eating lunch.

Cheh's bill also would put much greater emphasis on physical education in city schools. Elementary students, for instance, receive an average of 45 minutes of physical education a week. The bill would increase the requirement to 150 minutes starting in 2014. In middle school, where students now have physical education for one trimester, they would attend gym class throughout the school year for at least 225 minutes a week.

"We need to pass this 'cause our kids are getting fatter and fatter," council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) said at a council meeting.

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