New York Times Interview

SCHOOL LUNCH; What If Carrots Came in Chocolate? 

“HOW about some veggies, sweetie?” Fran Cortina asked a little girl wearing a purple flowered bandana, who was carrying a single slice of cheese pizza on her Styrofoam tray. “Come on, try some!”

The purple bandana ducked and giggled, and whisked by a tempting array of fresh broccoli, carrots and cucumbers, cut up into child-sized pieces, to join her fellow second graders in the school dining hall.

Ms. Cortina sighed. A no-nonsense-looking woman with an angel pin on the lapel of her dark suit, she represents Fine Host, the corporation that provides cafeteria catering for Lewisboro Elementary School here. Ms. Cortina attends school lunch time at Lewisboro several days each month, and she has seen plenty of finicky eaters.

“You try to encourage them to eat healthy, but in the end it’s just up to the individual,” she said. What the purple bandana and her classmates eat for their school lunches — whether they choose a balanced meal, or whether they bypass the fruit basket and make a beeline for the ice cream freezer — has become a hot issue in the affluent Katonah-Lewisboro school district this winter.

The Lewisboro P.T.A. offered its second annual No Junk January program this year, a monthlong effort to teach Lewisboro’s 517 students about the importance of a healthy diet.
Lewisboro parents attended a panel on child nutrition with a dentist, a pediatrician, a nutritionist and a holistic health counselor, and teachers ran classroom discussions on diet and health.

A series of games — “Be a Bad Fat Detective!” “Be a Hidden Sugar Detective!” — were intended to teach students to read labels more attentively, looking for processed sugars and hydrogenated oils. For the first time this year, No Junk January also included a junk food blackout week, during which no junk foods of any sort were sold at school.

The No Junk January program and the junk food blackout week were organized by Renée Simon, a nutritionist in private practice who is chairwoman of the Lewisboro P.T.A. committee on health and safety.

“We based No Junk January on a similar program they ran in Chappaqua last year,” said Ms. Simon. “The cafeteria agreed to stop selling junk food items for a week, and we set up sample tables in the cafeteria so the kids could try the healthier choices. The point is not to take away all their treats, but we found that when we offered healthier choices, the children were happy to take them. And then they feel better, and maybe they perform a little better.”

Penny Constantine, the assistant principal at Lewisboro Elementary, said both the children and their teachers noticed an improvement in concentration and classroom performance during the junk food blackout week.

“I even had a kid come up to me and say, you know, ‘I’m not as jumpy as I usually am,’ ” reported Ms. Constantine. “That was his way of putting it, but by the end of the week, our teachers had really noticed a change.”

The elimination of junk food from the cafeteria was such a success that it had many parents asking why the junk food couldn’t be taken out of the cafeteria altogether. And that’s when the trouble started.

“Fine Host told us they wouldn’t — couldn’t — take the junk food out of the cafeteria for good,” said Martha Handler, who has four children who attend Lewisboro Elementary. “It never occurred to me that the cafeteria had to make a profit. They say they sell more when it’s chicken fingers day than when it’s baked potato day, for example.”

School districts in New York sign one- to five-year contracts with food service providers, who are selected through a competitive bidding process. Once such a contract is signed, the food service provider has a free hand in deciding what is served in school cafeterias within the district.

The state requires that balanced meal options be available in each cafeteria, but whatever chips, cookies and ice cream bars are sold besides that is decided by the contractor.

This situation makes many parents uncomfortable, Ms. Simon said. “Fine Host supplies all food to Lewisboro Elementary, and they ultimately decide what they can and can’t bring in,” she said. “It’s unfortunate — they need to make a profit, and the big-ticket items, as they call them, are junk food. We actually need to get approval from the State of New York to change this.”

At Lewisboro Elementary, a hot lunch is $1.75; sweets and snacks are extra. About a third of the children bring their lunches from home, some buying a cookie or a snack at the school.
Ellen Keats, a spokeswoman for Fine Host, said that the company was committed to promoting good nutrition, but that what is ultimately served in school cafeterias is determined by many factors, including the preferences of the district, and the federal commodities available at a given time.

“Fine Host is very health-conscious, and we run a number of programs oriented to educating children on nutrition,” she said. “Often what is served depends on what federal commodities are available. If there’s a surplus of chicken, say, that will be made available, and that helps keep costs down for the district.”
Lewisboro parents cite concerns about juvenile diabetes, childhood obesity and body image.

They express frustration that the eating habits they are teaching at home are being undermined during the school day. They point out that when junk food was taken out of the cafeteria, the children didn’t seem to miss it, and ate turkey burgers and granola bars just as happily.

“I spent some time with the second graders — my son’s class — recently, and the children were talking about their New Year’s resolutions,” said Ms. Handler. “And already in second grade, a lot of the kids were saying they wanted to lose weight. It seems so obvious that the junk food should go.”

In the battle for a better school-day diet, however, elementary school cafeterias are just the beginning. In middle schools and high schools, vending machines are the subject of much consternation, as nationwide, Coca-Cola and Pepsi sign deals with school districts for exclusive rights to sell their products in school hallways, and put their logos on school score boards.

In a report to Congress in January 2001, the United States Department of Agriculture said that sales of candy, salty snacks and sweetened drinks sold in competition with healthier options were jeopardizing the nutritional effectiveness of school meals. And there are signs that lawmakers are starting to take notice.

For the time being, however, the chips and ice cream will stay in the Lewisboro Elementary l cafeteria, and the parents and teachers will have to encourage children to make healthier choices among them. Some of the children, evidently, are taking the message to heart. A pair of Lewisboro second graders hammed it up for a visitor, stomping melodramatically up to a trash can with a bag of corn chips: “Bad fats! Throwing away the bad fats — eewwwwww!”