By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 6, 2010; B02
Brianna Lattanzio wound her way through the bustling cafeteria line at her Silver Spring middle school one recent morning, weighing her options. Nutritional information was listed for each of the choices: an Asian-inspired chicken and rice dish (352 calories), vegetarian "chik'n" nuggets (190 calories), a steak-and-cheese sub (420 calories) and macaroni and cheese (481 calories).
The Sligo Middle School student opted for the macaroni. Brianna said that she picked the dish because it looked the best but that she appreciated having the calorie information.
"I pretty much wrote a letter last year saying that they should have more soups and salad," she said. "I think if they could try to lower the calories, that would be good."
This school year, all Montgomery County schools began posting nutrition information in cafeterias to help their young calorie-counters and encourage healthier choices. They also did it to comply with a new county law that requires food outlets with more than 20 locations to post calorie information for items served.
"This is a perfect way to integrate what's a requirement so that parents and students can really see that our students are healthy," said Marla Caplon, director of food services for the Montgomery public schools.
The change comes during a national effort to combat childhood obesity and improve the quality and healthfulness of the foods children eat. First Lady Michelle Obama has advocated for a child nutrition bill that would increase federal spending on school food and tighten limits on fat and sodium contents. The Senate approved the bill last month, and the House is expected to do so this fall.
Few other Washington area school systems post calorie counts in their cafeterias, although many provide nutritional information online for curious parents. An exception is Fairfax County public schools, which have listed calorie counts in lunchrooms for the past decade, spokesman Paul Regnier said.
In the District, school meals are slated to be more healthful this year after the city passed a law mandating low-calorie and low-fat meals and banning transfats and limiting sodium and saturated fats.
At Sligo Middle School, hungry seventh- and eighth-graders lined up last week up to collect their food on small foam trays.
In addition to the main dishes, students could choose from pears, plums, apples and salad, and, this being Maryland, Old Bay seasoning for their French fries. Calorie counts also were listed on a big poster in the main hall of the cafeteria.
One student said he was a reformed fast-food junkie.
"Before, I used to like eating McDonald's a lot," said John Shungu, 12, singling out Big Macs as his favorite. "But they're too many calories." He picked the steak-and-cheese sub and broccoli soup.
Not everyone was in favor of purely healthful eating, though.
"I don't like eating too much healthy food," said Kristian Paulos, 12, who was perched next to John at the long cafeteria table. "You have to have some fat on your body -- but you can't have too much fat," he said, nibbling on the faux chicken nuggets and fries.
And one student threatened to boycott cafeteria meals if lunches got any more healthy.
"The snack line is all junk food. I like it," said Samnisha Horne, 14. "If they changed it I would hate the school." (Caplon pointed out that even the junk food items -- the bags of Doritos and other chips, for example -- are the reduced-fat versions.)
The school estimates it serves cafeteria meals to about 60 percent of its students every day. Last year, half of Sligo's students qualified for free or reduced-price meals, an indicator of poverty.
Officials said the school system has been working over the past few years to improve its meals, serving more whole grains and widening the selection of fruit. New this year, flavored milk is available only in nonfat varieties.
The school system also participates in a federal program that limits the amount of fat and sugar allowed in foods, Caplon said.
Caplon said the calorie information probably would have the most effect at the high school level, when students better understand the complexities of nutrition, which is taught as part of the school system's health classes. Parents can attend healthful cooking classes at schools, she said.
Sligo students said the new information would eventually sink in.
"I see the list," said Chantal Valladares, 12. She was eating a plum.