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Ky. Schools' Healthy Example Could Shape a National Policy

Congress has tried to limit junk food in schools since 1994 but could move closer to national standards this year.
Congress has tried to limit junk food in schools since 1994 but could move closer to national standards this year. (By Randy Squires -- Associated Press)
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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.

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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."

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