- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 14, 2007

RICHMOND — At Chimborazo Elementary, apples aren’t just for teachers.

The glossy fruit lined lunch trays on a recent Wednesday, alongside wheat rolls, low-fat sorbet and gobs of greens — healthy choices all happily scarfed by fourth-graders.

“There’s a direct correlation between a healthy child and achievement,” said Richmond schools spokeswoman Felicia Cosby, smiling as students tore into string beans and low-fat milk.

State lawmakers hope this is the lunchroom of the future.

They’re considering bills targeting childhood obesity, regulating what children eat at schools and empowering administrators to measure Body Mass Indexes (BMIs) among their youngest students.

“It’s a state responsibility,” said Sen. John S. Edwards, Roanoke Democrat, who introduced a bill requiring state educational and health officials to cooperate in targeting childhood obesity and other juvenile health problems.

Last session, the lawmaker introduced a bill requiring school superintendents to complete nutritional training as well as establish uniform school-lunch policies. That bill is pending.

Other lawmakers have urged a comprehensive study of obesity in Virginia’s schools, and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine touched on the topic during a State of the Commonwealth address Wednesday night.

“It’s becoming a problem — not just in Virginia, but nationwide,” Mr. Edwards said. “The first approach is to ensure that there are nutritional standards statewide.”

Virginia’s Department of Education requires food sold a la carte — items sold separate from planned meals — to meet at least 5 percent of the daily recommended intake of one of eight essential nutrients, like calcium, iron or protein.

A 230-calorie Hershey’s chocolate bar, with 8 percent of the daily recommended value of calcium, meets that standard.

Schools receiving funds for participating in the federal lunch program are restricted by nutritional guidelines developed by the government. All Virginia public elementary and middle schools participate in the school-lunch program, according to July data.

There are no federal or state regulations that apply to meals or any other foods served by schools not participating in the federal program, which include some Virginia high schools.

Those schools are on their own.

Mr. Edwards said efforts toward healthy eating are strongest in larger, wealthier districts like Fairfax County, where a monthly nutrition message and special healthy-living classes helped earn one school, Mantua Elementary, recognition from the governor’s office.

“Others, there’s nothing formal,” Mr. Edwards said. “It’s kind of a hit-and-miss situation.”

Healthy measures stumble most in less-affluent school systems, said Sen. Yvonne B. Miller, Norfolk Democrat, whose bill would require a Body Mass Index measurement for every first-time kindergarten or elementary student. Schools could then monitor the height-to-weight ratios annually.

“In poor districts, localities cannot put in as much money” for creating wellness programs, Miss Miller said, comparing Arlington to relatively less-affluent Richmond, for example.

Such districts often contain majority-minority schools: More than 90 percent of Chimborazo’s 538 students get a subsidized lunch, and most are black.

Experts say that group is hardest hit by obesity, an epidemic affecting an estimated 17 percent of U.S. youngsters.

Virginia joined New Jersey, New York and Maryland in weighing BMI-related legislation last year. Seven states already have such laws in place, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

It alarms Deb Burgard, an eating-disorders specialist and advisory board member for the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance in California.

Such legislation “adds to the stigma against fat children,” said Miss Burgard, who questioned the emphasis on BMIs, which some critics say offer an oversimplified view of one’s health.

“We should be having debates about what constitutes a healthy environment for our children,” she said. “But we should not be having those debates on the backs of fat children.”

Other critics say a 2004 law requiring federally funded schools to develop wellness plans should be given time to effect change.

At Chimborazo, the new wellness plan is making waves. Rainbow-sprinkled cookies, last school year a hefty 2 ounces each, are now half that.

Wheat pizza with low-fat cheese is standard, and even staffers pick 100 percent juice over syrupy sodas. Administrators favor the state legislation.

“Whatever does support a healthier lifestyle for our children, we support,” Miss Cosby said.

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