D.C. Council approves tough school lunch, exercise standards

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The D.C. Council unanimously approved stringent school nutrition and exercise standards on Tuesday, but federal officials persuaded members to remove a key provision of the "Healthy Schools" legislation before they voted on it.

Approved on the same day that the council waded into the national immigration debate, the measure calls for District public and charter schools to add more fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains to the meals of about 71,000 students. It also encourages schools to buy food from organic farms in Maryland and Virginia, adds thousands of students to the free-lunch program and will eventually triple the amount of time that students have to spend exercising.

But council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), sponsor of the legislation, stripped from the bill her proposal for calorie limits for school lunches and breakfasts, a sign that there remains conflict among health officials over how to address childhood obesity and school nutrition.

Cheh drafted her proposal to conform to Institute of Medicine guidelines issued last fall that recommended calorie limits on school meals. But after The Washington Post published on Sunday a story about Cheh's proposal, U.S. Department of Agriculture officials asked the council not to move forward with calorie limitations. Currently, USDA school-lunch standards establish minimum, but not maximum, calorie requirements. In some cases, according to city officials, Cheh's bill capped calories at levels beneath the USDA requirements.

"We will abide by the USDA standards so we don't lose federal funding," Cheh said, referring to the reimbursement the city receives for school lunches.

Neal Barnard, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, said that the USDA calorie minimums are a byproduct of a "Depression-era mentality" that schools should act as if "lunch was the only meal a child was having" for the day.

But with childhood obesity rates climbing, Barnard said, health professionals and nutrition advocates are working on Capitol Hill to get federal calorie limits lowered.

USDA officials, who noted that first lady Michelle Obama has made school nutrition a top priority, say they are in the process of trying to update standards. But they say the process has been slowed by simultaneous efforts to revise the "Dietary Guidelines for All Americans," which traditionally drive school standards.

Even without the calorie limits, Barnard said, the bill approved by the council is "probably the most progressive legislation in the union" regarding school nutrition.

The measure mandates that schools meet the federal "gold standard" for lunches and breakfasts, which requires that a different fruit and vegetable be served every day and that only low-fat or nonfat milk and whole grains be offered.

The measure also bans trans fats and limits sodium and saturated fats, while requiring all schools to serve breakfast free. If signed into law by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), the bill also will transfer students eligible for reduced-priced lunches into the free-lunch program.

Jennifer Calloway, a spokeswoman for the D.C public schools, said school officials "support many provisions of the bill" but question how the city will pay its estimated $6 million-a-year price tag. Cheh is proposing a one-cent per ounce tax on canned and bottled soda, which would generate $16 million annually.

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