Beginning in January, the menu at Mark Twain School in Montgomery County will include a special additive-free breakfast and lunch in addition to the regular fare.
The alternate meals will be used for the remainder of the academic year at Mark Twain, a school for special and learning disabled students in grades five through 12.
Joanne Styer, director of the country school lunch program, said her staff will monitor the demand for additive-free foods and will consider implementing similar programs in other county schools next fall.
Mark Twain, in Rockville, was selected for the pilot project after Styer's office received several requests from parents who follow a diet recommended by Dr. Ben F. Feingold, a California pediatrician and allergist who advanced the theory that behavioral disturbances and learning disabilities in some children are caused by some artificial food additives.
Members of the Montgomery County Feingold Association, an organization of parents supporting Feingold's diet maintenance theory, assisted Styer's staff in planning the special menus. In addition to artificial additives, the Feingold diet prohibits approximately 21 foods that contain salicylate, a chemical compound used in making aspirin and found naturally in some foods. Among foods containing natural salicylates, which Feingold contends excite some children, are tomatoes, apples, oranges, peaches, most berries, grapes, plums and almonds.
Styer said she believes necessary nutrients can be supplied by substituting fruits and vegetables without salicylates. "We are going to observe the pilot program closely and we may make adjustments, but for now we will follow a rigid Feingold diet," she said. "We are not endorsing Feingold but providing an alternate for parents who want it."
The special menus will include eggs, French toast, pears, melons, pineapple, grapefruit, fresh meat and vegetables, peanut butter, honey, cheese, homemade vegetable soup, manicotti with cheese sauce, wheat buns, bran muffins, carrot cake, date bars and banana nut bread.
Students will pay the same price for the alternate meals (35 cents for breakfast; 60 cents for lunch) as for regular-meals. Those eligible for free meals or reduced prices also may select the alternate meals. An additive-free frozen yogurt will cost 30 cents at the dairy bar, and ice cream with artificial additives will cost 15 cents.
Styer said she does not believe the program will result in cost increases to the county. However, if it does cost more, she said, alternate meal prices also will be increased. Children who receive free or reduced price meals would not be affected by a price increase, she added.
Mary Jordan, social worker at Mark Twain, said the faculty and staff will attempt to support children who are on the diet and will observe their progress. "We are looking for ways to document whether or not the Feingold diet will help these children," she said, "but children in public schools have access to food with additives, and without the support of teachers and other students, they may trade their food or purchase something they shouldn't have."
Jordan said she has seen some children on the Feingold diet become calmer and less disruptive. "I look at some and see a change," she said. "In others, I don't." She said she does not know how many children will purchase the alternate meals, although approximately 50 parents have responded favorably to the meals through a school questionnaire. Mark Twain has 275 students.
Dr. Katharine Waldmann, school medical adviser, cautions that Feingold's evidence is based on empirical data, not long-range, controlled experiments. "We will observe the progress of children who are on the diet, but we won't be able to make a controlled study," she said. "It is important that parents do not take the alternate diet as an endorsement of the Feingold theory or implement the diet without consulting their physician."
Although several federally funded studies of Feingold's theory are under way, Waldmann said, it is not an accepted medical treatment although there is nothing harmful about the diet.
"While there is not one cause for learning problems, the Feingold diet may play a supportive role in some cases," said Ron Laneve, Mark Twain principal. "Feingold may have come upon something and we want to look at it."
Mary T. Goodwin, chief nutritionist for the Montgomery County Health Department, said it may be unrealistic to eliminate all natural salicylates from a child's diet. "If the menu is too limited, it will discourage children from buying it."
On the other hand, she said, "Artificial colors and flavors are often used to mask the poor quality of foods. If we can get rid of them, I'm all for it."
Mark Twain will not be the first school to test the Feingold diet. A similar program was implemented two years ago in Smithtown, N.Y., where the Feingold meals are used regularly. Clara Davis, school lunch director at Smithtown, said Feingold lunches are prepared in a central kitchen and distributed to 17 satellite schools.
C. Anthony DiNuzio, Prince George's County director of school food services, said his office has received a few requests for a similar program and he intends to explore the diet cautiously. "I am interested in what Styer is doing, but I am not planning to go that way now," he said. "Every bit of food I buy has an additive of some sort. I would have to go to all health foods to develop a diet that is additive-free."