Thursday, June 15, 2006

California: Big food fight on Bay Area's school menus

Nobody seems to be asking what is the evidence for the effectiveness of these dietary interventions. Since virtually all the evidence on the long-term benefit of dietary and lifestyle changes suggests that there is no benefit, that is rather surprising. Decibels seem to swamp science. And the salad freaks overlook that the Eskimos lived perfectly healthy lives for thousands of years on a diet that consisted of little more than meat, fat and fish. In fact, because it is such a good energy food, they were big eaters of fat -- obtained from the blubber of marine mammals. Lucky they had no California food faddists around to harass them. And one day it might become quite an embarrassment in sunny California that fatty food protects you against skin cancer

It's war at the Santa Clara Unified School District. But parents aren't fighting over the curriculum, or over bilingual education or even over school closures. They're brawling over cupcakes -- and chocolate bars, and hamburgers and candy. School food has become a national obsession. And no place is the fixation more evident than in the Bay Area, where activists are determined to put an end to obesity and teach kids how to eat right. They're filling school yards with edible gardens, applying for grants to put salad bars in cafeterias, teaching students and parents how to cook healthful meals and replacing cookies with strawberries at school dances.

It seems simple. It's not. All agree that schools need to clean up their nutritional act, but there is bitter dissent over how it should be done and how far it should go. Some think the state, schools and corporate food companies aren't doing enough to keep fatty and sugary foods off campuses. Others believe schools are going too far -- adopting policies that are too draconian and turning teachers and administrators into the food police. And then there are the school boosters, who acknowledge the need for more nutritious meals on campus, but fear that junk food bans will cost their districts hundreds of thousands of dollars in fundraising money. "It's gotten pretty heated," said Roger Barnes, Santa Clara schools' business administrator, on the debate the district has been having since January over banning junk food 24 hours a day, seven days a week. "It's about changing the way people think and changing the culture. But that's not easy."

In recent years, California has passed some of the most stringent school food laws in the country. The state, concerned that it has the second highest rate of overweight children in the nation, passed legislation introduced by Sen. Martha Escutia, D-Whittier (Los Angeles County), that would heighten nutritional standards at schools. The law, which goes into effect July 1, 2007, says vending machine snacks sold on campus during school hours, and a half hour before and after, must meet certain requirements: No more than 35 percent of their calories can come from fat, no more than 10 percent can come from saturated fat, and no more than 35 percent of their weight can be sugar. Entrees prepared in school cafeterias must have no more than four grams of fat per 100 calories with a 400-calorie cap.

But Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor, one of the food industry's loudest critics and author of "What to Eat,'' says the junk food manufacturers are probably already looking for ways to circumvent the requirements. "I don't like this kind of criteria," she said, adding that although the new rules will rid schools of candy bars, they will also knock out most salad dressings. "It's a slippery slope, and there are always exceptions. Why not just get rid of highly processed foods and use the Marion Nestle method -- only serve foods with no more than five ingredients on the label."

As summer approaches, parents and school districts are grappling with strategies for the start of the upcoming school year in the fall -- a sort of dress rehearsal for when the new law kicks in. What's happening in Santa Clara exemplifies the struggles taking place all over Northern California. Parents and administrators in the South Bay city, not satisfied that the 2007 food requirements are strong enough, propose to completely ban junk food, even celebratory cupcakes, home-baked cookies and birthday cakes, on campus and during all after-school events. The plan, however, sent a whole other faction of parents and teachers into an apoplectic fit. "We get an awful lot of money from the snack business," said Angie Scott, a parent and athletic director at Wilcox High School. "Nutritious food is important, but it's expensive. And if we can't continue to fundraise, we're going to lose our athletic programs. And exercise should be the biggest component of keeping our children healthy." Scott fears that with an around-the-clock ban, concession sales at sporting events in the district would plummet. Gone would be the hamburgers, hot dogs, French fries and sodas that have become synonymous with high school football games. "The majority of the customers buying this stuff after hours are adults anyway," Scott argues.....

A steering committee in the district has prepared a compromise proposal, which is expected to be unveiled at a school board meeting Thursday. The vote is scheduled for the June 8 meeting. The new plan would allow four school celebrations a year with cakes and candies. It also encourages concessionaires to offer 50 percent healthful snacks, such as salads, fruit, water and juice, and asks that 50 percent of fundraising sales be nonfood items, such as T-shirts, mugs and wrapping paper. In addition, the proposal says that by the start of school in August, vending machines at Santa Clara schools will only sell healthful foods. [Whatever they are]

At Bret Harte Elementary in the San Francisco Unified School District, faculty got rid of the vending machines last year. This year they eliminated the soda machine in the teachers lounge, because Principal Vidrale Franklin thought it was a bad influence on the kids. She discourages parents from bringing in baked goods for celebrations, but Franklin says it would be too controversial to outright ban cakes and cookies. Instead they gently encourage parents to use the school's recipes for desserts like a fruitcake made with yogurt.

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