Across the country cities and counties are going after American's expanding waistlines banning the things that are bad for you. Now the battle of the bulge is heading into schools where the enemy is junk food. It's part of a growing food fight. Trans Fats, supersized sodas and even Happy Meals have been under attack in recent years. In Montgomery County Schools, making sure kids eat healthy is part of the mission. "We have a responsibility to ensure the health and well-being of these students," said Marla Caplon, director of nutrition services for Montgomery County public schools.
During the school day in Montgomery County, it's hands off sugary snacks or sodas. They're only available in vending machines after the bell rings at the end of the day. Kids can still buy chips, cookies and pop tarts in some vending machines, but don't be fooled. These are low fat, whole grain versions of the real things which meet strict nutrition guidelines. "Any product has to have 35 percent calories or less from sugar, the same from fat, and 10 percent less calories from saturated fat," Caplon said.
In the cafeteria, nothing is fried, not even French fries. They're baked. If you buy lunch, students must grab a fruit or vegetable. That's the rule, even if it's hard to stomach. "People just like to have their own food and choose what they want to eat instead of being forced," said Souki Gonzales, a high school student in Bethesda.
This year, new federal nutrition guidelines put school systems nationwide on a healthier diet. The healthy hunger free kids act mandates fruits and vegetables. While it may smack of the food police but it might be making a difference. According to the CDC, 1 in 5 kids is obese. But a recent study for the American Academy of Pediatrics found states with the toughest rules against school junk food saw a drop in obesity rates. "Kids on average are about one-third of their calories during the school day. So if you clean up the school food environment, it's a really good start," said Margo Wootan, Child Nutrition Director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
CSPI advocates for more federal involvement not less but critics draw the line at the lunchroom door. "There's something wrong when the specific foods, the menus for school lunches are determined in Washington, D.C. For every school in the country," said James Gattoso, a Senior Fellow in Regulatory Policy at the Heritage Institute.
The federal government's healthier nutrition guidelines aren't sitting well with some students. In many cases the "healthy" part gets trashed. "They eat the fries and the burgers and they throw out the vegetables and the fruit." said Luke O'Driscoll-Downes, another Bethesda student.
Not surprisingly, the food-fight over school lunch has spilled over to Congress where some House Republicans have called on the agriculture department to toss those new federal guidelines in the trash, saying it will cost schools more than three billion dollars to comply.
In Montgomery County, the school system decided to create what it calls a share table. Anything kids don't want to eat goes on the share table and anyone else who wants can take it. On the day FOX5 visited one middle school cafeteria, only one item remained at the end of the lunch period. Anything left over that can be donated is sent to a food bank or shelter in need.
Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia has a different way of handling the dilemma between what's healthy and what kids will eat. All recipes are put to the test. "Nothing goes on our menu that does not go through a taste party," said Penny McConnell, director of food and nutrition services for Fairfax County Public Schools.
Fairfax too bans junk food vending during school. Still a 2007 school food report card by CSPI gave Virginia a D and Maryland a D+. While schools have cracked down they face a backlash. It's not just kids, but parents who are revolting. "They feel that in some ways it's un-American that their children should be able to make the choices that they want to make," Caplon said.
Is it really un-American for schools to ban what's bad for you? The reality is schools can serve up whole wheat hamburger buns and post the calorie counts but there's no law that says they have to eat it.