Parents protest as buses bypass burgers

Taconic Hills aims for healthier student meals
CRARYVILLE–After hearing a parent complain that his child was returning from away games too late to do homework because teams stop for fast food, Taconic Hills School Superintendent Neil Howard ended the food stops. But that has riled other parents and students.
“Many schools don’t stop at fast food restaurants. The last thing an athlete needs after a competition is nutrient poor food,” Superintendent Howard said in an interview this week. That position didn’t go down so well in the district, which has received a petition signed by over 300 district parents and students who assert parents’ rights to decide what their children may eat while at school or on a school trip and decry changes made in the school food service offerings since the district complied earlier this year with federal food guidelines.
“You can’t deny the link between nutrition and academics, and nutrition and athletics,” said Dr. Howard. Referring to critics of the new policy, he said, “They think I’m interfering with their rights, but while they’re at a school function they are under our jurisdiction. It’s not a constitutional right.”
Until now students on school buses riding home from away games could, at the discretion of the coaches, stop for a fast food meal.
Coach and driver eat for free and the school district must pay for the additional hour and a half of their time spent eating.
Dr. Howard ended the practice on the grounds that the school should not endorse fast food when it is trying to teach kids good nutrition habits in health classes. Fast food consumption is not endorsed by the school’s wellness program in place since 2007. The program cites research by the U.S. Department of Health that the percentage of overweight teens has more than tripled during the past 20 years.
The superintendent also mentions a fairness factor: “Some kids don’t have money. We could send along a cooler of sandwiches and drinks,” he said.
Compliance with federal guidelines is required of any school that receives federal reimbursement of up to $2.85 per meal for the free and reduced price lunches and breakfasts it serves to students below or near the poverty line (families earning 130 -185% of the poverty level are eligible). According to Dr. Howard, around 50% of the district’s student body receives the free or reduced price food for one or two meals a day.
The petition also complains that math teachers are no longer allowed to use candy and cereal to illustrate problems, that ice cream vending machines have been removed from school premises, that children are no longer allowed to make gingerbread houses out of graham crackers, candy and frosting, and that the PTO can no longer sell raw cookie dough for fund raising purposes. It also expresses concern for team members who go for five to eight hours without food while on a trip to a game.
“By passing a policy to restrict these items, [the district] is basically saying that the parents are unable to make these decisions for themselves,” says the petition.
Dr. Howard sees the problem differently. “Our school population has problems with diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, food allergies and food sensitivities. Healthcare costs in our society are rising. We have a responsibility to teach students how to make the right nutrition choices,” he said.
“We try to teach them to make the best choices,” said Amie Moore, a health teacher for the middle and high schools, who teaches students to aim for a half-plate of protein and grain and a half plate of vegetables and fruit. She suggested that students might bring their own food on road trips instead of resorting to fast food.
“In moderation fast food is OK. It’s convenient and cheap. But if students are hungry, they are going to choose fattier foods. Hunger overrides our logic,” said Ms. Moore.
Pam Strompf, who heads the school’s food service and is co-chair of the district’s wellness committee, said the Federal Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act has changed the school’s food service but not as dramatically as some suggest. Salad bars have been created at both the high school and middle school, and elementary school cafeteria choices have received an enthusiastic response from students and teachers.
Although some students complain that meat portions have been reduced to two ounces, Ms. Strompf said, “We’ve always done around 2 ounces. We can’t exceed 12 oz per week per student at lunch.”
That may be policy, but a student who complained about small portions wrote, “We crave something more filling.”
A wellness committee headed by James Derby and Mrs. Strompf will meet in November to devise a food plan for away games. As for food on the bus, “We’re still determining who would pay for it,” said Ms. Strompf.

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