At Nathan Hale School, candy bars are confiscated. Bake sales are frowned upon. The vending machines don’t carry soda - only water, milk, or juice.
This is a “junk food-free school,” an early phase of a districtwide initiative to fight childhood obesity. It’s where third-graders have salads if they don’t like the main course, and where seventh-grade girls take Pilates after school.
Nationwide, many schools are reconsidering their vending machine offerings and changing their lunchroom food lineup. But New Haven, an urban district on Connecticut’s shoreline, is particularly committed.
“There isn’t a candy bar in this school,” says principal Kim Johnsky as she surveys the maze of lunch tables.
Nathan Hale, a K-8 school, is the first to go completely junk-free. Next fall, all schools will get a touch of the healthy treatment as the program expands.
Vending machine choices will be overhauled: baked chips will replace fried, granola will replace cookies. Cafeterias in elementary and middle schools have already rolled out baked versions of things like chicken nuggets and french fries, and fried foods will be gradually phased out of high schools, too.
The program doesn’t stop in the cafeteria.
The district has started cooking classes for parents and infuses regular science classes with nutrition lessons. Building renovations include designs for larger gyms to encourage physical activity.
Even the bake sale, a traditional source of fund-raising for classes and parent organizations, is being discouraged in favor of plant sales and penny drives.
District Superintendent Reginald Mayo vows to lose 30 pounds by doing the same things he’s trying to teach his students. (Up 2 pounds after three weeks on a diet, he admitted he wasn’t off to a great start, though.)
“I’m going to look pretty hypocritical if I’m talking about healthy eating to kids and parents, and I’m walking around at 217 pounds,” he said.
In New Haven, an urban district on Connecticut’s shoreline, the poverty rate is so high the system has a universal free lunch program. The district doesn’t have hard data on how many students are obese, but officials say a significant number of its 20,400 students have diabetes.
Nationally, about 15 percent of children and adolescents between the ages 6 and 19 are obese, according to government figures.
Dr. Stephen Updegrove, a medical adviser for New Haven Schools and one of the primary architects of the district’s policy, said one goal is to create a “ripple effect” from the school to community.
But the program has met some resistance, particularly among school officials who fear that the program will trade healthy budgets for healthy eating.
The junk food- and soda-stocked vending machines pull in up to $10,000 in extra income for some of the high schools each year, and some schools fear income won’t be as high with healthier snack options.
“That’s considerable, considerable dollars,” said Mayo, who is looking for ways to make up the lost revenue.
Schools across the country have made similar moves. Next year, six schools in other Connecticut cities will test a junk food-free vending project with the help of a federal grant.
“We can’t guarantee they won’t lose money,” said Susan Fiore, a nutrition specialist with the state Department of Education. “But maybe the payoff is worth it. There’s a lot of research out there that kids who eat better learn better, and that’s a pretty easy sell.”
A separate program will work with 10 local school systems to create nutrition policies. For example, teachers start rewarding students with something other than candy, and birthday parties might mean extra recess instead of cupcakes, Fiore said.
“It’s slow,” she said. “There’s a lot of ingrained things that take time to change. You talk about not having cupcakes at birthday parties, and people freak out.”
Schools that develop nutrition programs, however, are in uncharted territory. There is little research on their effectiveness.
Dr. David McCarron, president of Portland, Oregon-based Academic Network and a specialist in childhood obesity, has been conducting a survey of school programs across the nation.
“There’s a desire in the school districts that are trying to do the right thing,” he said. “The problem is, I don’t think we have a handle on what the right thing is. Very few of these efforts have ever had measured outcomes, so we don’t know if these things are going to make a difference.”
New Haven officials say their program has already created some results. In the parents’ cooking class, some of the participants have started to lose weight, said Jene Flores, a family educator in the district.
Meanwhile, in the cafeteria at Nathan Hale, the new lunches are getting mixed reviews.
Angela Cable, a 9-year-old with glasses and a long brown ponytail, is just fine with the salad option.
“I’m not a vegetarian, but I don’t eat a lot of meat,” she explained.
Stephanie Aurora, a seventh-grader with blue-and-white manicured fingernails, is more blunt. She wants soda, and doesn’t like the tuna fish that is on her salad.
The new food choices aren’t her favorite, “but they’re OK,” she says.
Revision date: June 18, 2011
Last revised: by Andrew G. Epstein, M.D.