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Wednesday, September 29, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Education
Some students slow to bite on schools' healthier menus

By Lynn Thompson
Times Snohomish County Bureau

GREG GILBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES
The vending machines at Everett High School carry only healthy foods — resulting in a lot of empty slots.
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Ask students at Everett High School what they think of the district's new policy banning pop, candy, chips and french fries in favor of healthier food, and you'll hear yelps of protest.

"We're teenagers. We're supposed to eat junk food," said Nick Abeyta, a 10th-grader who last week was spending his lunch hour at a nearby McDonald's.

With three fast-food restaurants within walking distance of the high school, Abeyta and three friends joined many upperclassmen who'd surveyed the healthier offerings at the school cafeteria — including chef's salad and yogurt parfaits — and voted with their feet.

"Chef's salad is not what kids eat," said 10th-grader Melanie Winslow. "When we're older, we'll eat healthier."

The grown-ups in the Everett School District decided earlier this month to help students curb bad eating habits. In August the School Board adopted new nutrition standards that limit the fat and sugar content of food sold in its 25 schools and reduce some portion sizes.

School lunches already had to meet federal requirements for nutrition, but many schools offered an array of a-la-carte items such as french fries, chicken strips and doughnuts. Vending machines, available to students throughout the day, supplied potato chips, candy and pop.

Now the vending machines offer baked chips, 100 percent fruit juice and water.

National statistics on childhood obesity and on the low consumption of fruit and vegetables among youth have prompted school districts around the country to limit the amount of junk food available to students. The Seattle School District earlier this month adopted policies that banned the sale of pop and foods high in sugar and fat.

Olympia recently introduced all-organic salad bars at its elementary schools, while California school districts in Berkeley, Santa Monica and Palo Alto have organic-food programs. Other districts in California, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire and Connecticut have or are getting new vending machines stocked with all-organic snacks.

The 18,000-student Everett district may be a regional leader in offering healthy choices. Its elementary schools began featuring salad bars about 15 years ago, said Debbie Webber, district food- and nutrition-services manager.

Webber said district principals began noting the large amount of snack food available to students during the day and questioned whether those foods enhanced learning.

A committee of teachers, administrators, parents, Snohomish County health officials and students began meeting in March to study the issue and in August recommended that the district provide students with healthier food and beverage choices.

Dr. Ward Hinds, health officer for the Snohomish Health District, praised the school district for adopting the new nutrition standards, despite the inevitable protests of students.

He said kids are "bombarded" from infancy with advertising images of fatty and sweet foods, a strategy he likened to marketing cigarettes to children.

"Schools should be part of the solution, not part of the problem," he said.

The biggest concern about changing the district's food selections came from activity advisers whose clubs earned money for travel, equipment and events through vending-machine and other food sales.

Pop machines at Everett High School, for example, brought in $22,000 last year, all of which went toward student activities, said Criss Bowsher, Associated Student Body treasurer. The student store, which sold candy bars and other snack foods, also made more than $20,000 last year.

Denny Byrnes, marketing teacher at Everett High and adviser to DECA, the club that runs the student store, said the change in policy has presented students with a real-world example of changing markets and attitudes. His class already is planning to test-market a healthier range of products for the store.

His marketing students, though, were divided on the district's new nutrition policy. Junior Kailey Tetrick called it a "good thing," noting the national epidemic of obesity.

"Some kids don't take the initiative to eat healthy," she said.

But Ashleigh Hodges said she didn't think the school district could solve the obesity problem.

"Kids can still make bad choices at home," she said.

Behind the former snack counter in the Everett High cafeteria, where salads have replaced the "awesome" french fries, Judy Borovina, food manager, said juniors and seniors — who are allowed off-campus for lunch — often take advantage of the opportunity. But in the school cafeteria, business hasn't fallen off in the first few weeks of school. Reaching beneath the counter to restock a selection of salads, she said of the new, healthy menu items, "I think it's great."

Information from The Associated Press was included in this report. Lynn Thompson: 425-745-7807 or lthompson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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