Nutritionist leads charge against junk food in Idaho schools

Thursday, February 2nd 2006, 1:10 pm
By: News On 6

BOISE, Idaho (AP) _ Stephanie Rose walked into the lunchroom of the Idaho Falls High School with a homemade chart and tallied what she found:

Canisters of potato chips. Heaps of candy. Cellophane-wrapped cakes. High-caffeine sports drinks.

Twelve percent of the foods offered by the district a la carte program were granola or cereal bars, fruits, vegetables, or low-fat chips or pretzels. The other 88 percent included nachos, corn dogs, chips and cookies.

``For 25 cents you can buy 310 calories,'' said Rose, a nurse and diabetes educator who attended Idaho Falls High in the 1980s, when she had to take a helping of beans on her plate whether she wanted them or not.

These days, the school promotes ``Corn dogs: two for a dollar,'' she says. ``Good Lord, what are you trying to do here?''

Rose studied the food offerings for a school wellness committee, and she's campaigning to get rid of junk food. But she's facing opposition from some parents and school officials who say that if they ban school snacks, the kids will just buy them somewhere else. It will also cut off money that pays for equipment and programs.

It's sticky question that many schools face these days.

Idaho Falls High School Principal Randy Hurley says he wants the kids to eat well, but his main concern is keeping the school clean.

``If we become more restrictive here, within half a block the kids can go purchase what they're interested in,'' Hurley said. ``One of our greatest concerns is they'll bring in the big beverage cups. You spill a 44-ounce drink and you have half a gallon of liquid to clean up.''

Tracie Miller, a mother and school board member who is on the wellness committee, hears that argument a lot. It doesn't sway her.

``A lot of them leave campus and buy cigarettes. Should we sell cigarettes to make money?'' Miller said.

Then there's the question of choice.

``If you just take everything away from them and say it's all bad, you're not teaching them to make a decision,'' said Cindy Ozaki, head of the Parent Teacher Organization for Longfellow Elementary. ``We are telling parents, we're going to tell you how you should raise your children and what you should be buying.''

The U.S. Department of Agriculture allows school districts to sell ``competitive'' food such as candy and cookies alongside the regular lunch. Ozaki's PTO and other school groups also make money selling cookie dough, cheesecakes, candy and other items _ money that goes for school equipment and programs.

As in the rest of the country, Idaho residents are getting fatter. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2003 that nearly 60 percent of adults in Idaho were considered overweight or obese. Rose said one-third of the patients she sees who are at risk for diabetes are under the age of 18.

The Idaho Falls district wellness committee is the result of a federal law that directs all school districts to have a policy in place by the end of June. But the law has no teeth in it; nothing happens if districts don't come up with a plan.

For now, the Idaho Falls committee is proposing minor changes _ banning sales of candy in the lunchroom and limiting the size of sodas sold in vending machines. Miller and Rose want to get rid of all school junk food.

Miller questions the whole premise of school snack sales, noting that the companies providing the products make a profit. She suggests that asking people to give money directly to the school makes more sense than selling a tub of cookie dough for $12 and splitting the profit with the vendor.

Then, she and Rose will take aim at the rest of what's offered _ like lunch plates piled with pizza and French fries slathered with ranch dressing.

Rose believes she and Miller will find support in Idaho Falls, a town of about 50,000. The federal law is prompting everyone to take a look at school food, she said.

``It's going to sort out the school districts who care about their kids from the ones who don't,'' she said.