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Thursday, May 6, 2010

District school lunches to become healthier

One aspect of DC SCORES' curriculum is health and nutrition. In addition to providing more than 700 kids with an opportunity to get physical activity as part of a soccer team, we strive to teach them about proper living habits -- especially when it comes to eating.

This is particularly emphasized during the winter, when our Power of Choice curriculum focuses on the benefits of physical activity and living nutritiously.

However, there's only so much DC SCORES can do when it comes to kids eating right. Largely, students' eating habits are in the hands of their parents as well as school administrators. For many of our students, at least two of their staple meals each day are consumed at school as well as a few snacks. So, basically, at least two thirds of their nutritious intake depends on what is served in the school cafeteria.

And for the most part, that hasn't been a good thing. Foods high in sugar, sodium and artificial flavors have dominated Washington, DC public school cafeterias, leading DC to develop the ninth highest obesity rate in the country for kids ages 10-17.

But progress was made Tuesday, when the D.C. Council unanimously approved stringent nutrition and exercise standards as part of the "Healthy Schools" piece of legislation. The measure mandates for District public and public charter schools to add more fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains to students' meals and at least encourages schools to purchase such foods from organic farms in Virginia and Maryland.

Additionally, thousands of students will be added to the free-lunch program -- which many DC SCORES students are already eligible for -- and, according to The Washington Post, "will eventually triple the amount of time that students have to spend exercising (during school)."

All good things.

Originally, the bill was also going to set a limit on calories per meal (breakfast and lunch), but that was stripped due to opposition by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Still, the measure orders for schools in the District to meet the federal "gold standard" for breakfasts and lunches. Under this standard, there will only be low-fat and nonfat milk served, and a different vegetable and fruit must be served every day.

Hopefully, this will help students become more enthusiastic about eating fruits and veggies -- and DC SCORES can certainly help in encouraging that -- and less reliant on sugary drinks such as chocolate milk and some of the most unhealthy foods out there containing trans fats, which the measure bans. It also limits the sodium and saturated fats that can be served.

The measure also requires all schools to serve breakfast for free, and as long as it's a nutritious breakfast, I'm sure many parents will take advantage of such a time- and money-saver.

Of course, there remains the question of how the city will pay the approximated $6 million per year to accommodate such changes. Council member Mary M. Cheh, who drafted the proposal, suggested a one-cent per ounce tax on canned and bottled soda, which would not only bring in roughly $15 million annually but also, undoubtedly, decrease the number of the sugary drinks consumed by the District's youth -- continuing the trend toward healthier living.

We'll see, however, if that gains any traction. Whatever is done to fund the measure, it can't be debated that the District's students will be eating healthier during the school day before DC SCORES programming even begins.

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