Money, machines factors in student nutrition
Sitting around a bare table, Dad and the kids are getting antsy.
When Mom finally plops down a single, steaming-hot bucket of fried chicken -- the whole family cheers and smiles.
Finger lickin' good or not, Julie McGrath, on the other hand, cringes.
The scene, a take from one of Kentucky Fried Chicken's latest TV commercials, includes no plates, napkins or silverware, but worse, no grains, milk or vegetables -- just deep-fried chicken.
"I know it tastes good and stuff, but it's just loaded with fat and sodium -- and that's what the kids are seeing now as dinner," McGrath said. "It just rubs against my grain."
As De Soto USD 232's student nutrition director, McGrath is up against a lot in her task to get students to make healthy choices. A bill recently introduced in the Kansas Legislature, if passed, would require districts to provide healthy choices in school vending machines.
However, McGrath -- along with many sweet-toothed students -- doesn't think that alone would change students' eating habits much. Furthermore, omitting junk food from vending machines or cafeterias could shrink a significant revenue source for schools.
House bill No. 2137 would require districts to regulate items in vending machines accessible to students on the premises of any school, beginning with the 2005-2006 school year.
All snacks and drinks at middle and elementary schools must be "healthy food alternatives," the bill states, like bottled water, milk, 100-percent fruit juices, dairy products or vegetables. At least half of the products in high school machines would have to be healthy.
The bill also would prohibit teachers from using candy as a reward or incentive.
De Soto High School has six vending machines in its cafeteria: three Pepsi, one Gatorade and two snack machines.
Among four drink machines, one slot exists for orange juice, one for apple juice and two for bottled water. The snack machines' healthiest options appear to be gum, PopTarts, salami, sunflower seeds and some sort of peach-strawberry gel.
Vending machines are fair game anytime except the lunch hour. In keeping with state law, custodians lock them up so students will turn to the school lunch program, McGrath said.
Lexington Trails has a pop machine in the commons, but vending machines at district elementary schools are not accessible to students, only staff.
Options are one thing, McGrath said, but free will is a different matter altogether.
"Certainly it would be wonderful and ideal not to have any carbonated beverages, or candy bars, or chips, or anything like that," she said. "Students, particularly the high school level, have a lot of access to foods outside the school itself."
Freshman Katie Schmidt's lunch of choice Monday comprised a bag of Cheetos and an oversized chocolate chip cookie, both available from the a la carte part of the lunch line at DHS.
High school students aren't allowed to leave the premises for lunch, so they can't pick up Taco Bell or Sonic during the day, but they have a lot of options in the lunch line.
Any student can order a traditional, balanced school lunch, but more pizza, hamburgers and cookies seem to make their way through the check-out line than anything else.
During between-class breaks, when vending machines are unlocked, Skittles, Starburst and pop were students' top picks, Schmidt said.
If vending machines were revamped, they weren't sure how popular health food would be, said Schmidt and her table-mates, freshmen Kayla Henry and Lindsay Grantham.
The girls surmised granola bars, yogurt or peanuts might actually sell. But they wouldn't bet students wanting a snack would buy apples.
"I think that they would still get junk food," Henry said. "Well, it depends on what kind of healthy food it was -- I don't think anyone would get apples."
"I would probably choose healthy food that tasted good," Schmidt said.
Grantham pointed out the obvious: there would be a better chance of students making healthy choices if vending machines actually contained healthy products.
"It couldn't hurt to have healthier food; there's no way it could hurt," she said. "If there was more options, and you saw something that looked good, you would eat it."
McGrath meticulously plans hot lunches to comply with federal nutrition standards. But a la carte or vending machine junk food sales serve an extra-nutritional purpose -- revenue.
Individual schools, not the student nutrition department, are in charge of their own vending machines, McGrath said. Most allow vendors to stock machines with whatever they think will sell.
McGrath said she wasn't sure how a loss of machine sales would affect schools. But if it ever came to banning junk food sales in the lunch line, the loss would take a bite out of her department's self-sustaining budget, McGrath said.
"If we were to do away with that, a significant source of our funding would be gone," McGrath said.
To make up the difference, the district likely would have to increase lunch prices for students as well as supplement the student nutrition program with general-fund money, McGrath said.
With so much unhealthy food available, why does the bill single out vending machines?
McGrath guessed it would be difficult for lawmakers to define and corral other snack sales categories, which range from the a la carte lunch line to concessions or fund-raisers.
"I think that's their way to target a particular, easily definable market," she said.
A team effort
It takes a multi-edged sword to help youth learn and stick with healthy diets, McGrath said.
"If you only have nutrition being focused on during a small portion of the child's whole eating time, it's not reinforced very well," she said. "If Mom and Dad are trying to provide nutritious choices, but then the kid is eating Twinkies or PowerAde for lunch, then that undermines the parents."
That works the other way, too.
McGrath always groans when she sees that KFC commercial because she knows things like that actually happen.
"Those are the kinds of things that you compete against," she said.