- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 10, 2009

Lisa Regnante can’t stand the milk. Bonnie Sorak could do without the hamburgers. Christina Small says it’s all

bad. They meet at the Bagel Bin on Route 40 in Ellicott City, Md., and they just can’t stop complaining about the food.

The food at the Bagel Bin is fine. These women, along with other members of the PTA Wellness Committee at Centennial Lane Elementary School in Howard County are talking about what’s being dished out to children through the National School Lunch Program. They are just a snapshot of parent volunteers who are trying to establish a local grass-roots campaign to change the way children eat at school.

This is a conversation that is taking place not only among local PTAs and school communities, but across the state and the nation. In mid-October, first lady Michelle Obama hosted the White House Healthy Kids Fair, where she announced the Department of Agriculture’s HealthierUS School Challenge, aimed at finding schools that are committed to making fresh, healthy foods available to their students, among other things.

Lisa Regnante, PTA nutrition activist and mother of two boys, understood that sooner or later, someone was going to have to take a stand on the nutritional value of the food being offered in school. Two years ago, when she left her post as PTA president, she told the administration she would like to start a wellness committee. Not only that, she said she wanted to dive in head-first and tackle the very profitable snack program at the elementary school, which had a list of almost 50 snack items that were full of artificial colors, flavors and preservatives.

When Ms. Regnante asked for parents to join the committee, she ended up with a gold mine of volunteers who brought diverse experiences, perspectives and expertise. Among them is Ms. Sorak, whose family follows a conscientious vegan lifestyle, and Ms. Small, whose former work on Capitol Hill lends practical legislative knowledge to the battle over nutrition in public schools.

Today, the school is leading a wellness snack pilot program countywide. The program has introduced all-natural or organic snacks that have no more than 9 grams of fat, 2 grams of saturated fat and 10 grams of sugar.

“It’s a start,” Ms. Regnante says. “If we can do this, people in other places could feel like they can do it, too.”

They are. Prince George’s County’s public schools are seeing major shifts in the way health and nutrition are being presented in schools, in part because of a four-year, $1 million grant that was extended by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation and funded by the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation. The alliance is a joint venture with the William J. Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association aimed at combating childhood obesity in the United States through the Healthy Schools Program.

Briana Webster-Patterson is the alliance’s relationship manager in Prince George’s County schools. She said she has completed technical-assistance sessions with 140 of the county’s 207 schools, with plans to complete sessions with all schools during the next two years.

At Mount Rainier Elementary School in Mount Rainier, the staff implemented a no-candy-rewards policy after rethinking the effects of associating good performance with sugary treats.

“They truly see the connection between good health, nutrition and physical fitness with good grades and performance,” Ms. Webster-Patterson said.

In Montgomery County, parents and administrators are trying to work together to create more nutritious options in public schools.

Aviva Goldfarb said the county is taking steps forward on school nutrition by introducing more whole grains and fruits and vegetables into the menu, though maybe not as fast as some parents would like.

Ms. Goldfarb is well-known as a volunteer activist for the reformation of school nutrition. Her Web site says she owns the Six O’Clock Scramble, a seasonal online weekly menu planner and cookbook.

Top on her list of reforms would be more whole fruits and vegetables, preferably from local farms. She says an overwhelming amount of evidence makes this the obvious first choice to positively impact youngsters’ nutrition. She also adds that a simple trick to getting children to eat more fresh produce is to cut up the fruits and vegetables. This was something some Montgomery County schools did last year but stopped because produce has a short shelf life, which resulted in a lot of waste, says Kathleen Lazor, food and nutrition services director for the county school system.

However, Ms. Lazor said that in January, the schools will reintroduce prepackaged, pre-cut fresh apples provided by the Department of Agriculture.

Another initiative that is surprisingly popular in some Montgomery County schools has been vegetable-based soy protein products. Ms. Lazor said MorningStar chicken-flavored nuggets are extremely popular among students who have a vegan lifestyle as well as those who do not.

Ms. Lazor said that although the soy-based proteins are a little more expensive, she was able to work them into the budget plan.

“It’s not a bad thing to expose [students] to a soy-based protein that is not only acceptable to them, but it is lower in fat and enjoyable to them. We think that’s important,” Ms. Lazor said.

All of these initiatives came before Mrs. Obama’s challenge, and Centennial Lane Elementary School’s Wellness Committee sees this as a momentous opportunity for change.

The committee would like to see its list of wellness initiatives implemented not just on a local level, but on a national level. Ms. Goldfarb in Montgomery County said that with continued and coordinated parent and volunteer participation, local changes have the ability to spark national interests, allowing the grass-roots campaign to thrive.

They know it won’t be easy. Ms. Regnante of Centennial Lane school may not get rid of the strawberry milk. Ms. Sorak may never get her vegan Mondays. Ms. Small certainly can’t get rid of it all - But that won’t stop her from trying.

“When has anything about the United States been about settling for second best, or we’re not going to do this because it’s hard?” Ms. Small asked rhetorically. “That’s not why people come to this country. They come to this country because they have the opportunity to work hard, do better for their families. That’s what we’re doing. That’s what we’re going to do.”

Gena Chung is a freelance writer and graduate student at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism in College Park.

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