School cafeterias could start counting calories
Proposal would require statewide posting for school lunches, which currently only is done in Montgomery
ANNAPOLIS The lunch menu at Rolling Terrace Elementary School in Takoma Park on March 1 featured either a whole grain soft taco with corn or a hot dog with baked beans.
It also included another ingredient: calorie counts of each item.
State lawmakers are considering legislation that would require all public schools, beginning next year, to publish on their lunch menus the number of calories in each product.
"We ought to be teaching our children from the get-go what they're eating and how many calories are in the food they eat," said Del. Doyle L. Niemann, who is sponsoring the measure.
Montgomery County began posting calorie content on its school lunch menus at the start of the current academic year, which conforms with a county law requiring establishments with more than 20 locations nationwide to provide calorie counts on their menu boards. The federal health care overhaul establishes a nationwide menu labeling requirement for most chain restaurants.
Although school cafeterias are not subject to the county law, which took effect in July, the school system decided to comply anyway. Several other counties in Maryland, including Anne Arundel and Prince George's, post calorie and nutritional information on their websites but not on the lunch menu itself.
Calorie counts are included on the menus that are sent home with elementary school students in Montgomery and are prominently posted in middle school and high school cafeterias, said Marla Caplon, director of the school system's Division of Food and Nutrition Services. The taco and corn meal totals about 500 calories, while the hot dog and beans lunch is almost 400 calories, according to the school menu.
Feedback from parents has been positive, she said.
Niemann (D-Dist. 47) of Mount Rainier credited a fellow lawmaker with suggesting the calorie requirement for school menus.
"From a public health perspective, we're going to have much better outcomes if we reach youngsters by educating them about important nutritional choices," said Del. Nicholaus R. Kipke (R-Dist. 31) of Pasadena, who floated the idea last year when Niemann proposed a statewide menu labeling bill for chain restaurants; that measure failed.
Offering healthy school lunches hits close to home for Kipke, whose two younger siblings attend Anne Arundel County public schools.
"For many children, especially in the urban areas, the meals they receive at school are their main source of food," he said. "Here we are, filling them up with overly processed, high-sodium [foods with] empty calories."
Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years from 6.5 percent in 1980 to 19.6 percent in 2008 among children ages 6 to 11 and from 5 percent to 18.1 percent among children ages 12 to 19, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Obesity, defined as a person who is 20 percent heavier than their ideal weight, has doubled in Maryland over the past 20 years, according to a July 2010 report by Advocates for Children and Youth. About 177,000 of 615,000 Maryland children between the ages of 10 and 17 are considered obese, according to the report.
"Education is the first step in helping to alleviate the problem that mostly affects children," said Younyoung Lee, a student attorney with the public health clinic at the University of Maryland School of Law.
He noted that Colorado, Maine and Massachusetts mandate some form of school menu labeling.
However, a study of 20 high schools published last fall in the Journal of Child Nutrition and School Management found that posting nutritional information in lunchrooms did not significantly influence student meal purchases.
Although the bill's fiscal note suggests the measure would carry little, if any, cost to the state or school systems, it could prove expensive for some smaller school systems that currently do not conduct nutritional analyses of their menu items, said Jeffrey M. Proulx, supervisor of food and nutrition services for Washington County Public Schools.
Rather than requiring school systems to devote limited resources to posting and publishing nutritional data, it may be wiser to spend money on buying healthier content, he said.
Staff Writer Andrew Ujifusa contributed to this report.