The Big Issue
Not surprisingly, many efforts to rid schools of junk food have been part of larger anti-obesity efforts. A new federal policy, initiated in part by Senator Harkin, requires that all schools have a wellness plan that addresses nutrition. Over the past two years, 15 states passed laws that restrict junk food to varying degrees, and an additional 24 states are currently considering similar restrictions. In 2004, Texas -- where more than 35 percent of schoolchildren are overweight -- issued a sweeping ban on all junk food in public schools, from vending machines to bake sales. (Interestingly, though, its ban on birthday treats created such a controversy that the state repealed that regulation. "We didn't realize how important cupcakes were," one official admitted.)
At the grass-roots level, schools are tackling the issue on many fronts. In Arlington, Virginia, the local school board voted to prohibit vending machines that sell soda and candy. In the Vista Unified School District in California, elementary-school lunchrooms have introduced "garden bars" with healthy choices like broccoli, cauliflower, grape tomatoes, and sliced cucumbers. Other schools have called on well-known chefs like Jamie Oliver and Alice Waters to help create healthy and appealing cafeteria options, and still others have planted gardens where kids grow their own fruits and vegetables.
Some districts are experimenting with new schedules. Researchers have found that kids who have recess after lunch race through their meal and are more likely to throw food into the trash. Yet according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recess usually comes after lunch in 73 percent of schools. When the Vista Unified School District switched it to before mealtime, "the kids ate better, and we reduced waste enormously," says nutrition director Enid Hohn.
In many areas, parents have been the driving force behind the push toward healthier foods. "When my older child entered kindergarten in Des Moines, her school told us that, for sanitary reasons, we could only send in prepackaged snacks -- and they suggested things like Little Debbie cakes," says Charli Carpenter, who now lives in Pittsburgh and whose children are 9 and 3. "My husband and I advocated for letting parents bring in fresh fruit. We convinced the school that a banana could be considered 'prepackaged.' "
Anita Courtney, a mom and a registered dietitian in Lexington, Kentucky, tackled the issue of using sweets as a reward in the classroom. She brainstormed with her daughter's teacher to come up with a list of alternatives, such as having a sing-along for a class celebration or letting the spelling-bee winner choose the day's story. That list was distributed throughout the school.
For the most part, parents are able to introduce such changes without antagonizing other parents, teachers, or school administrators, but that's not always possible -- as Meredith Roth discovered last year. "Maybe people didn't like the way I approached the junk-food issue," she concedes. "But you can't please everyone. I felt I had to do something. Somebody has to speak up for the health of our children."