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Sugar, fat face expulsion

State officials cheer proposed rules to limit unhealthy foods in school snack bars, machines

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By Stephen Smith
Globe Staff / February 10, 2011

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Sugary soft drinks — gone. Diet sodas — not here. French fries, calorie-laden snacks, and white bread sandwiches would also be banished from a la carte lines, snack shops, and vending machines at all Massachusetts public schools under rules proposed by state health regulators yesterday.

The nutrition standards give form to legislation approved last year by lawmakers alarmed by the bulging waistlines of the state’s children and adolescents; more than one-third of fourth-graders, for example, are overweight or obese. Lawmakers ordered the Department of Public Health to draft a healthier menu for students, and the result is heavy on low-fat snacks, whole-grain baked goods, fruits, and vegetables.

The proposed regulations, which would not apply to the main cafeteria line, mirror food practices already in place at some schools — including in Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville — and aim to make healthy choices an enforceable norm, rather than an easily avoided option. They are closely modeled on recommendations from national health panels, as well as practices in states such as Connecticut, which prohibits peddling any kind of soda or sports drinks in public schools.

The the school nutrition rules need the approval of the state Public Health Council, an appointed panel of doctors, consumer advocates, and professors, but members responded with uniform enthusiasm yesterday as regulators made their pitch.

The push to prohibit high-calorie, low-nutrient fare in schools emerges amid a national debate about government’s role in health care and just a day after two Boston city councilors called for banning smoking at parks and beach es, a move that raised concern about infringement of personal rights.

“Better standards for school lunch don’t create a nanny state; they get the government out of the obesity promotion business,’’ said Dr. David Ludwig, an obesity specialist at Children’s Hospital Boston.

The rules, which would take effect in the 2012-13 school year, reflect a burgeoning sentiment among educators and public health regulators that schools can dim the lure of super-sized menus and greasy, high-fat food by introducing students to healthier fare.

A study done last year after California schools implemented policies similar to those being proposed in Massachusetts found that students drank fewer sodas and more water at school, and there was evidence they consumed less candy and chips.

Parents in Massachusetts see signs of the changing sensibility about school food.

“My kids go to school in Cambridge, and they already have brown rice with every meal,’’ said Meredith Rosenthal, a Harvard School of Public Health researcher who sits on the Public Health Council.

Boston made the switch to healthier fare in 2004, eliminating sodas, sports drinks, and sugary juices from vending machines. The district’s food watchdogs began monitoring the portion sizes offered at a la carte lines where students choose from sandwiches, salads, chips, and treats.

“You don’t want to be feeding kids a bunch of sugar or low-nutrient foods and expect them to be well-prepared to learn,’’ said Jill Carter, executive director of the Health and Wellness Department at the Boston public schools.

Still, she acknowledged, no single initiative is capable of reversing an epidemic as complex as childhood obesity, rooted in economics, marketing, and access to better-quality food and robust medical services.

The proposed state rules would apply only to public schools and only during the school day and a half-hour before and after classes. A public hearing on the proposal is tentatively planned for next month, with a vote by the Public Health Council anticipated in late spring.

The federal government sets standards for the main cafeteria line because it underwrites a substantial share of the cost for that food. Last month, the US Department of Agriculture proposed rules to make cafeteria food healthier by requiring more fruits and vegetables and less sodium and saturated fat.

The elimination of sugary beverages is at the heart of the proposed state standards. Those drinks have been identified as a prime culprit in the surge of obesity.

Studies have linked even moderate consumption of soft drinks to substantially elevated risk of heart disease and diabetes, with Harvard researchers showing that a 20-ounce soft drink, a pretty standard volume today, contains the equivalent of 17 teaspoons of sugar.

But not only high-test soda is being targeted. Regulators also want to bar diet drinks.

“The nutrition folks who were looking at this felt the focus in the school setting should be on encouraging students to consume things with specific health benefits,’’ said Dr. Lauren Smith, medical director of the Department of Public Health. That translates into water, low-fat milk, and real juice.

One sign of the changing ethos around school nutrition was a move last year by the leading representative of soft drink manufacturers and distributors, the American Beverage Association. Responding to growing pressure, the industry alliance issued its own guidelines, urging members to offer only milk, water, and juice at elementary schools, expanding the offerings at high school to include low-calorie sports drinks and diet soda.

“It’s the responsible thing that supports the nutrition education that goes on in schools,’’ association spokesman Chris Gindlesperger said.

The proposed Massachusetts standards aim to mold the menus of children even when they are not at school. Nutrition specialists and school food executives said they hope that if they are introduced to fruits and vegetables that are unfamiliar to their palates, children will go home and ask their parents for those products.

“If, all of a sudden, the Oreos are gone at school and it’s now a regular yogurt that’s frozen that seems like a treat, then they say, ‘Hey, this isn’t bad,’ ’’ said Jennifer Sacheck, a nutrition specialist at the Friedman School at Tufts University.

“The simple exposure to healthier options will translate into the possibility of choosing healthier options out of school.’’

Stephen Smith can be reached at stsmith@globe.com