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Feds want schools to lay off the junk food

High school senior Jazly Leon listened politely to news that the Obama administration hopes to ban junk food from the nation's schools.

Then she took a bite of her chocolate chip cookie.

"If we're learning how to be adults, we should learn how to make choices now," Leon said Monday, as classmates at Central High in Brooksville streamed past. She took another bite.

Under the proposal, her school would have to eliminate candy, sugary drinks and high-fat foods from campus.

And it lays bare a junky little secret. It's inside those humming vending machines, or the afterschool snack shop, that officials say the real problem lies.

"You go out of the cafeteria, and you're looking at 15 machines," said Mary Kate Harrison, nutrition director for Hillsborough County schools. "You have Dippin' Dots, ice cream, candy bars. Whether the machine is on or off, what kind of message is that sending? They walk three feet out of the dining room and what do they see?"

The federal bill brought cheers from Tampa Bay school nutrition directors. It is said to include $1 billion in extra money to pay for more of the fruits, vegetables and whole grains that make teenagers cringe. But Republican support is far from certain, and the American Beverage Association told the New York Times it did not support a federal ban.

Pasco County has already removed such foods from its vending machines. Pinellas leaves it up to individual school principals, while Hernando pushes many junk food items to afterschool hours.

In Hillsborough, vending machines must be turned off during school breakfast and lunch. But students have figured out that loophole.

"Usually I'll go for the Pop-Tarts, because it's a little bit more bang for the buck," said Chamberlain High senior Justin Jones, who brings his lunch but can't always resist the snack. "I go for the chocolate chip cookie Pop-Tarts."

First lady Michelle Obama, who is leading the administration's effort to combat childhood obesity, can relate. French fries are her weakness, but she tries to balance it with other healthy choices, she told a school audience last October.

"When we're working hard to give our kids healthy food at home, if they go to school and eat a lunch that's loaded with calories and fat, then all the efforts that we try to instill at home, it gets knocked off a little bit," she said.

School nutrition directors say students are getting — and eating — more fruit, vegetables and whole grains than ever before. Often the pizza is low-fat, and the chips are baked rather than fried. Pasco County even serves hummus and recently won a national award for its vegetarian offerings.

"I think we are making great strides on our own to do these same things," said director Gray Miller in Pinellas County. "The legislation may hurry it up a bit, and I guess that's a good thing."

But outside the cafeteria in some districts, the vending machines run with few restrictions.

Rachel Lubitz, a senior at Countryside High in Clearwater, counts at least 10 machines at her school. There's the usual array of Pepsi drinks and Cheetos, she said, and an off-brand machine full of cheese sticks and red and blue drinks that no one buys. There's also a more expensive machine with sandwiches and fruit, but kids are usually broke and angling for the cheap stuff.

"At the high school level, (machines) run all day long," said Al Bennett, principal at St. Petersburg High. "It includes potato chips, cookies. I haven't seen any candy bars in there."

Schools only make a few hundred dollars a year on the food machines, he said. But large high schools like his can earn up to $40,000 a year on their Pepsi machines. That money helps pay for things kids need, Bennett said.

At Spoto High in Riverview, principal Clyde Trathowen uses the money to help low-income students attend field trips and to buy his graduating seniors a parting meal.

"I use it to give them something I couldn't give them otherwise," he said.

With tight budgets, officials said districts might be more likely to make vending snacks more healthy, rather than do away with them altogether.

Hillsborough County, which reached a 12-year, $50 million deal with the Pepsi Bottling Group in 2003, has restricted the size of drinks, offered diet soda in high school and banned high-calorie drinks in lower grades.

"I don't mind that the machines are in the school," said Harrison, the district's nutrition director. "It's what's in the machines. If we have things like baked chips or nuts or cheese sticks or yogurt, then okay."

Students might protest for a week or two, but then they'll get hungry, said Jones, the Chamberlain High student.

"If they didn't have bags of chips any more and started eating normal things, in a year or two people wouldn't remember what was in vending machines to begin with," he predicted.

Staff writers Jennifer Orsi, Jeffrey Solochek and Tony Marrero contributed to this report. Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3400.

Feds want schools to lay off the junk food 02/08/10 [Last modified: Monday, February 8, 2010 11:22pm]

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