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Officials wary of D.C. healthy food law’s implementation

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A law passed unanimously in early June by the 13-member D.C. Council is being hailed by vegan and animal-protection groups as a model for the nation, yet parents aren't so sure.

No trans fats; broccoli instead of french fries; nonfat milk instead of whole milk; and whole grains instead of white bread. Those are some of the meal changes mandated by the D.C. Healthy Schools Act, which aims to battle high childhood obesity rates in the city, where one-third of the youth are obese or overweight.

The law, which affects an estimated 71,000 traditional and charter schoolchildren, also ramps up the number of hours in physical education classes, calls for schools to report students' body mass index (BMI) to parents, requires schools to grow and buy local fresh produce, and mandates vegetarian meals, among other requirements.

Supporters call the meal requirements some of the most stringent in the nation, but some parents question whether D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) has the capacity and the money to implement the new requirements in a cost-effective manner by the time schools open in August.

A supporter, Dr. Yolandra Hancock of the Children's National Medical Center, laid out the problem in testimony earlier this year to the D.C. Council, saying 34 percent of 6- to 12-year-olds in the city are either obese or overweight.

"A greater percentage of youth in grades 9-12 are reportedly obese in the District (18 percent), compared to the nation (13 percent)," said Dr. Hancock, a pediatrician. For the most part, she and other experts attribute this weight problem to unhealthy eating habits and the lack of physical activity.

Detractors don't disagree on the causes of the weight problem. But the chancellor faces a "difficult task" because of limited control over school food services, which are contracted to private companies that lack strong parental input.

"The John Burroughs Education Center PTA in collaboration with the school has signed up with the Alliance for Healthier Schools Program in hopes of trying to begin the process of healthier food choices, more exercise for our students and their families," said Jocelyn Coleman, a parent and grandparent on Burroughs' PTA. "This is going to be a difficult task, since the food services are outsource[d] by DCPS, and we [parents] have no control.

"I don't think that DCPS on its own will have the capacity to execute this initiative," she said. "That is why it will be incumbent on the PTAs and other parent organizations to take the lead in bringing innovative approaches to ensure this program is successful."

The Washington Times reported earlier this year that Chartwells-Thompson School Dining Services, which has a multimillion-dollar contract with DCPS has a history of marginal quality and food-safety scares amid concerns over the nutritional content of its school menus. The Times reported that the company, which had served sugary cereal for lunch and nachos every day in other school districts, failed to meet federal requirements for nutritional iron content in D.C. schools, and neglected to post nutritional information online.

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee has concerns, too, including that some schools don't have cafeterias or kitchens. In order to comply with some requirements, including BMI measurements, food content and assessments of youths as they engage in physical activity, the school system would have to purchase equipment and hire additional nutrition experts, nurses and other health care professionals, and locate or build food-preparation facilities.

The chancellor said such fiscal implications on the school system budget leave her "cautious."

City officials have yet to say how much the healthy schools initiative will cost. The financial costs of the initiative shouldn't be ignored, says a parent at Murch Elementary, which lacks a cafeteria and a kitchen.

The law "adds whole new layers of bureaucracy, and rules and regulations," and "requires massive spending to handle the food provisions," said Dave Hedgepeth, whose twin girls attend Murch.

But supporters say the need to encourage children to eat healthier outweighs financial considerations. They also hope the city's action will help to boost the federal Healthy School Meals Act, which is awaiting House action.

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