'No Junk Food' the Rule in Conn. District

4/21/04 - By NOREEN GILLESPIE, Associated Press Writer

NEW HAVEN, Conn. - Principal Kim Johnsky walks the maze of lunch tables at Nathan Hale School, monitoring the third graders chattering loudly over lunch.

The menu: Hamburgers, tater tots, fruit, milk.

No soda. No cookies. No chips.

For the student with a sweet tooth, the vending machines offer no help: They're stocked with water, juice, and milk.

"There isn't a candy bar in this school," she says, except for the ones in her desk. Those were the ones that were seized.

This is the "junk food-free school," one of the early stages of a districtwide initiative to combat a growing epidemic of childhood obesity. It's where third-graders munch on salads if they don't like the main course, and seventh-grade girls take pilates after school.

By next fall, New Haven administrators plan to give every school a taste of what it's like to be junk-food free when they strip vending machines of salty, greasy and sugary food and drink.

Soda will be replaced by water, juice and milk. Baked chips will replace fried. Granola will replace cookies. Most cafeterias will roll out baked versions of chicken nuggets and french fries.

The program doesn't stop in the cafeteria.

The district is offering cooking classes for parents and infusing nutrition lessons into regular science classes. Building renovations include designs for larger gyms to encourage physical activity.

Even the bake sale, a traditional source of fund-raising for classes and parent organizations, is being discouraged in favor of plant sales and penny drives.

Reginald Mayo, the district's superintendent, has volunteered to lose 30 pounds by doing the same things he's trying to teach his students — exercise, eat a healthier diet, and drink more water during the day.

It won't be easy, he said. Three weeks into his diet he's gained two pounds. But he concedes that he's going to have to cut back on some of his longtime breakfast favorites: ham, home fries, eggs and bacon.

"I'm going to look pretty hypocritical if I'm talking about healthy eating to kids and parents, and I'm walking around at 217 pounds," he said.

New Haven, an urban district on Connecticut's shoreline, doesn't have hard data on how many students are obese. But officials do know that nearly 3,000 children suffer from asthma, and many have juvenile diabetes.

Nationally, about 15 percent of children and adolescents between the ages 6-19 are obese, and that figure has grown steadily over time, according to 2000 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (news - web sites).

Dr. Stephen Updegrove, a medical adviser for New Haven Schools and one of the primary architects of the district's policy, said one of the goals is to create a "ripple effect" from the school to community.


"Schools are a major area where kids spend a lot of time, a lot of structured time, and that's a real opportunity to model good behaviors," Updegrove said.

But the program has met some resistance, particularly among school officials who fear that the program will trade healthy budgets for healthy eating.

The junk food- and soda-stocked vending machines pull in up to $10,000 in extra income for some of the high schools each year, said Robin Golden, executive director of business operations for New Haven schools.

"That's considerable, considerable dollars," Mayo said.

When it's gone, there is some fear that healthy alternatives won't turn as big of a profit. That money is often used for field trips, awards programs, special events and other extras. Mayo said he is reviewing his budgets to see if there are ways to fill the revenue gap.

Schools across the country have made similar moves. California has passed legislation to ban junk food from vending machines, and New York City has cut out hard candy, doughnuts, soda and salty chips. Hawaii's Board of Education also recently put strict limits on machine contents.

In Connecticut, a bill that would require schools to offer healthy things like juices, water and dried fruit and ensure a 20-minute recess awaits action in the Legislature. Similar bills related to childhood +obesity+ have not succeeded in past sessions.

Next year, six schools across the state will pilot a junk food-free vending machine project. Using a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (news - web sites), six schools in Canton, Colchester, Southington, Meriden and Danbury will sell only things like nuts, baked chips, and smoothies.

It will test the theory that if only healthy food is around, kids will eat it, said Susan Fiore, a nutrition specialist with the state Department of Education (news - web sites).

It will also measure revenue loss, to determine if schools really do lose thousands of dollars when they make the switch from junk food to healthy food.

"We can't guarantee they won't lose money," Fiore said. "But maybe the payoff is worth it for the schools. There's a lot of research out there that kids who eat better learn better, and that's a pretty easy sell."

A separate program will work with ten local boards of education to create nutrition policies. For example, schools can tell teachers not to use candy to reward students, or give a student with a birthday an extra recess rather than celebrating with sugary cupcakes, Fiore said.

"It's slow," she said. "There's a lot of ingrained things that take time to change. You talk about not having cupcakes at birthday parties, and people freak out."

New Haven officials say their program has already created some results. In the parents' cooking class, some of the participants have started to lose weight, said Jene Flores, a family educator in the district.

The classes teach basic things like how to handle meat and cook food thoroughly, and substitute spices and herbs for salt and butter.

"Parents have the knowledge that what they're doing at home, that it's not wrong, but it's not that it's right either," said Flores. "So they sit down and they want to prioritize what's good for them, and what's good for their children."

In the cafeteria at Nathan Hale, the new, healthier lunches are getting mixed reviews from students.

Angela Cable, a 9-year-old with glasses and a long brown ponytail, wrinkles her nose at the thought of a hamburger. But the salads meet her approval.

"I'm not a vegetarian, but I don't eat a lot of meat," she explained.

Stephanie Aurora, a seventh-grader with blue-and-white manicured fingernails, is more blunt. She wants soda, and doesn't like the tuna fish that is on her salad.

The new food choices aren't her favorite.

"But they're OK," she said, glancing back at her salad.