Feeding K-12

Kids learn better when they’re eating healthful stuff—but try telling that to the folks running soda vending machines in middle schools

Cesar, 14, enjoys a $3 pizza deal not far from Reno High School.

Cesar, 14, enjoys a $3 pizza deal not far from Reno High School.

Photo By David Robert

The results of the Washoe County School District’s food and beverage study will be presented at an upcoming school board meeting. Agendas are posted on the school district’s website.

It was easier to eat the mushy overcooked peas than to try to sneak them, uneaten, past Ms. Vega, a hefty, stern lunchroom guardian. Ms. Vega demanded to see clean plates before allowing us to exit the cafeteria. No matter. We found ways to hide the offensive green stuff. We wadded veggies in napkins or wrapped them in notepaper. In the worst case, you could fill your cheeks with the squishy food—just to earn an exit—then eject the gunk into the toilet before you headed out to the playground.

You had to remember not to talk with your mouth thus full.

That was a few decades ago.

These days, kids have choices, for better or worse. Too bad that, for many kids, the easiest, happiest choice isn’t the most healthful.

School lunch providers have long faced a balancing act between finding food kids will eat, food kids should be eating and food parents want kids to eat—and paying for all of the above.

The topic of school lunches (and breakfasts, snacks and those nachos drenched in slimy cheese-colored substance sold at track meets) is coming soon to a Washoe County School Board meeting near you.

It’s been about a year since the School Board decided, at the request of a group of worried parents and health care professionals, to look at what public schools are feeding our kids these days. As a result, a Food and Beverage Study took a look at food. Not the food served as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s school breakfast and lunch program. But that other food—the a la carte french fries, vending machine sodas, gummy worms given out as treats for winners of spelling bees, and Hostess Ho-Hos.

The study looked at the nutritional quality of such foods and the financial impact of food sales. Often, some athletic programs or other clubs rely on proceeds of snack sales as a major source of funding, says Lisa Hill, a parent and registered dietician who worked on the study.

“There’s this [division of public schools] called ‘Nutrition Services,’ and you think they’re supposed to be providing nutritious meals,” Hill says. “But it turns out they’re supposed to be making money.”

Vending machines may be operated by clubs or athletic groups. And nine out of 10 vending machines, Hill says, are selling foods high in fat, sodium and/or sugar.

“Those are foods that aren’t really helping anyone,” she says.

Hill’s own two children hadn’t been in elementary school for long before she became worried about a few trends she was seeing in the school yard. These unhealthful attitudes weren’t exclusive to Nevada schools; they were a microcosm of a nationwide change in health ideals.

Some of the trends noted by Hill are included in an informational brochure she created:

• Sales and marketing of unhealthful food in schools contribute to obesity, tooth decay and Type II Diabetes, which was once rare in children but is now on the increase.

• Studies show that school-aged children aren’t getting the nutrition they need. Only 2 percent eat from all five major food groups on a regular basis.

• Soda has replaced water, natural juice and milk. About 20 percent of 1- and 2-year-olds drink soda. Half of children between ages 6-11 drink an average of 15 ounces of soda a day.

• Food sold outside the USDA program is unregulated for nutritional value. No guidelines exist for the pizza, cookies, chips, soda and ice cream sold a la carte or from vending machines.

• Schools say the money generated from the above sales is necessary to sustain food service departments or other school programs. But the energy costs for running just one vending machine can be $300 per year.

“I wondered, ‘Are there any other people concerned about this?’ “ Hill says. “And some people are really concerned. Other people don’t really understand what the problem is. I’ve asked teacher and principals, ‘Do you see any problem with giving candy for a reward to students?’ And everybody’s response was, ‘It’s just one time a day, no big deal.’ But as my kids traveled through the day, multiple people were giving them things.”

If parents are counting on the school system to see to a child’s nutritional needs, their trust is misplaced.

The attitudes that begin in elementary school are not only repeated in middle and high school, they also get worse.

“Then you have a situation that appalls me,” Hill says.

It’s noon, about a block from Reno High School. In a strip mall dotted with small eateries, Domino’s Pizza attracts a horde of teens. For $3, you can get a personal pizza, half-order of bread- or cinna-sticks and a 20-ounce Coke. Jack Probat, franchisee, says the $3 deal will last until at least Jan. 1. The pizza place serves an average of 150 students a day, “200 on a Friday,” Probat says.

Domino’s is one of the places that freshman Cesar, 14, frequently visits. He’s not sure what kinds of foods are served at Reno High School. It wouldn’t matter if they served more healthful foods or even cheaper pizza—he and his friends enjoy the freedom of an open campus.

“We just want to be outside,” he says. “We have too much of school for one day.”

Cesar, who says he considers himself a health-conscious eater, skips breakfast. After school, he snacks on candy or other “junk food.” He says his mom cooks a balanced dinner in the evenings.

Not far away, two freshmen girls, Jessie and Naomi, enjoy brown-bag lunches that they brought from home. Jessie’s having a Diet Snapple, turkey sandwich and chips. Naomi has juice in a foil pouch, a ham sandwich and an orange.

It’s not that these two are committed necessarily to a healthful sack lunch. Sometimes they eat out. But fast food costs more than the stuff Mom buys at the grocery store. And, like Cesar, they aren’t sure what’s available on the Reno High campus.

Alex, 15, wanders with his pizza and soda from Domino’s over to a coffee and pastry shop, where a similar cluster of teens has gathered. If the strip mall offered a shop with healthful lunch alternatives, he might give it a try, he says.

But his dream lunch?

“Probably this,” he says, nodding at the pepperoni pizza on a paper plate.

The results of the school district’s study won’t be available until after the study’s been presented to the Board of Trustees. Hill says that the study results didn’t surprise her, in light of research she’s done into the national problem.

She hopes parents and educators will unite to adopt a healthful food plan for schools that addresses the nutritive value of all foods accessible to students during the academic day.

Parents can write or contact school board trustees to let them know how they feel. They can watch for the issue to come up on the school board agenda later this month. (Agendas are available at www.washoe.k12.nv.us.)

“Time is of the essence,” Hill says. “Bring young people out [to the trustee meetings]. They’ll listen to young people.”

The bottom line: Children who eat a healthful diet have greater success in school, she says, and that fact too often is overlooked.

Instead, schools and parents have allowed the corporate food industry, Hill says, “to directly market their products in what should be a sacrosanct environment—our schools.

“It’s not right. There are other ways."