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State bans unhealthy food sales in schools

Rules apply to all except main line in the cafeteria

By Kay Lazar
Globe Staff / July 14, 2011

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Sugary soft drinks, diet sodas, and artery-clogging food will be a thing of the past at Massachusetts public school snack shops, vending machines, and a la carte cafeteria lines under rules unanimously approved yesterday by state health regulators.

The nutrition standards adopted by the Public Health Council take effect in the 2012-2013 school year and are believed by advocates to be among the most comprehensive in the country.

But the council - an appointed panel of doctors, consumer advocates, and professors - delayed a ban on sweetened, flavored milk until August 2013 to give schools more time to find other ways to encourage children to drink milk.

“We knew that people were going to have strong feelings about this and were concerned that overall milk consumption would drop,’’ said Dr. Lauren Smith, medical director of the Department of Public Health. “We wanted to give schools time to prepare so it can be done in a seamless way.’’ Studies have shown that when flavored milk is banned, milk consumption drops slightly but then rebounds, she said.

The new rules reflect concerns about bulging waistlines among the state’s children and adolescents - roughly one-third are overweight or obese.

Faced with the troubling numbers, lawmakers directed the Department of Public Health last year to create a healthier menu for students. Low-fat snacks, whole-grain baked goods, fruits, and vegetables will now be promi nently featured.

French fries, calorie-laden snacks, and white-bread sandwiches will be gone.

Portion sizes will also be carefully controlled, so a serving of juice, for instance, will be no more than four ounces.

Gone will be sugary beverages, which have been identified as a prime culprit in the obesity epidemic.

Studies have linked even moderate consumption of soft drinks to substantially elevated risk of heart disease and diabetes. Harvard researchers have shown, for instance, that a 20-ounce soft drink contains the equivalent of 17 teaspoons of sugar.

While many schools have gradually removed soft drinks, the ban on sweetened, flavored milk may be tougher to swallow, said Derrikka Gillenwater, who graduated in June from West Roxbury’s Media Communications Technology High School.

Gillenwater said many students often gulp three or four flavored cartons of milk from the snack store next to the cafeteria instead of eating lunch, then complain later they were hungry or crashing from a sugar high.

“It will have to be the only option in the school for them to drink white milk,’’ said Gillenwater, who served on a youth advisory board for the Boston Public Schools lunch program. “They will have to suck it up and get over it.’’

In Lawrence, where nearly half of students are overweight or obese, authorities were surprised to learn several years ago that students chose their milk primarily based on how it was packaged, said Anne Marie Stronach, director of the school district’s nutrition services.

The district wanted to switch from whole to low-fat milk but worried consumption would plunge. Working with researchers from the University of Massachusetts, the district studied students’ choices and found most were selecting blue cartons, which contained the lowest-fat milk.

“It had nothing to do with the milk, but the color of the carton,’’ Stronach said. “We removed whole milk, and we didn’t see any decrease in the consumption.’’

Stronach, who is a member of the Massachusetts School Nutrition Association, an organization that represents food service directors, said the new regulations could be problematic for some districts that rely on a la carte sales, such as flavored milk, to help balance their food budgets. Smith said health regulators are aware of those concerns and hunting for ways to lessen the financial impact.

The rules require schools to make sure students can get a free drink of water when they want it, but Smith said her agency recently discovered that not all schools had drinkable water available. Sometimes, that is because aging plumbing makes it unhealthy to drink from water fountains.

The new standards are closely modeled on recommendations from national health panels and are similar to food practices already in place in some districts, including Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville.

The rules will not apply to food served in schools’ main cafeteria line because the federal government, which pays a substantial share of that cost, sets the standards for that fare. Earlier this year, 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 state rules will apply only to public schools and only during the school day and a half-hour before and after classes.

Kay Lazar can be reached at klazar@globe.com