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Eat Healthy, Get Wealthy

State Provides $2.3 Million To Schools That Shape Up Menus

By FULVIO CATIVO, The Hartford Courant

August 22, 2007

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Healthier menus adopted by 82 school districts last school year drew moans and groans from students upset by what they considered unpalatable changes.

French fries and other fatty and sugary treats were out. Fresh fruit and other more nutritious meal choices were in.

But time passed and the moans faded away. And not long after, schools participating in the state's healthy food certification program began to reap the nutritional and financial benefits.

State records released this summer show that the state Department of Education sent more than $2.3 million in grants during the 2007 fiscal year to districts participating in the program. Amounts ranged from about $600 for tiny Scotland to more than $340,000 for Bridgeport.

The program, a voluntary provision of An Act Concerning Healthy Food and Beverages in Schools - a state law that bans sales of soft drinks and sports drinks in all schools - issued guidelines for fat and sugar content in food sold there.

Foods that don't meet those standards are prohibited from being sold in schools participating in the program. In some districts, adopting the law ended the sale of fatty, sugary snacks often featured in lunch lines, bake sales or vending machines.

Local districts are given some flexibility. School boards can opt to allow food that doesn't meet those standards to be sold in certain situations, such as after-school fundraisers and athletic events.

As an incentive, districts participating in the program receive an additional 10 cents per lunch in state reimbursement.

Many school districts, such as Avon and Suffield, opted not to participate last school year, citing concerns about lost revenue generated by sales of sweets and fast foods.

But, officials from districts that participated in the program's first year - during which schools could enroll at any point - say the stricter menu standards have helped educate students, parents and staff about food choices and helped change the culture on nutrition.

"Everyone's awareness has been raised as to healthy food - from the kids up to the adults serving the foods," said Ronald Jakubowski, assistant superintendent for business and operations for New Britain's school district.

Officials from participating districts said that the state's reimbursement grants helped offset the loss of revenue from sales of now-banned sweets and snacks and in many cases helped fund modernization efforts in dining services departments across the state.

"It was worth it for us from a profitability standpoint," Jakubowski said.

The more than $122,000 New Britain got from the state in fiscal year 2007 allowed the district to upgrade its dining services equipment and implement a debit card-like system at its middle schools so students can buy lunch with the swipe of an identification card.

The identification cards, in turn, also help boost the school's security, Jakubowski said.

Supporters of the healthy food certification program said the legislation, and the districts that chose to implement the voluntary provision, resulted in wise decisions that will contribute to the health of students.

"I'm pretty pleased with the results. I think it's a great piece of legislation," said Lucy P. Nolan, a parent of three West Hartford students and executive director of End Hunger Connecticut! Inc., an organization that helped craft the healthy foods law in the legislature. "I wish more schools would do it around the country."

State, school and nutrition officials are looking to build on the success of the program's first year and expand to the 80 or so districts that so far have not implemented the stricter food standards in their schools.

Susan S. Fiore, nutrition education coordinator for the state Department of Education, said the state has held many informational workshops to explain the program.

State officials have also worked to simplify the application process for school districts - many of which were deterred from joining the program in the first year because of concerns over the complexity of the program and the dearth of products that fit the state's strict food standards.

But, Fiore said, food industry giants like Nabisco and Kellogg have taken note of Connecticut's new food guidelines.

"Vendors are really starting to reformulate products to meet our standards," she said.

Although the number of districts that will join the program for the 2007-08 school year won't be known until after the Aug. 31 enrollment deadline, municipalities such as Middletown have already decided to join the program. Hartford's school district, which could get more than $350,000 from the state in per-lunch reimbursement as part of the program, is set to decide this week whether to follow the state guidelines.

"I think if parents let the local boards of education know how important this is for their children, then we will have increased participation in the future," said Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, an ardent supporter of the soft drink ban and healthy food certification program.

Williams did not rule out future legislative changes to the healthy food certification provision, including boosting the financial incentive for districts to participate.

"We wouldn't permit our schools to sell cigarettes to children even if it were legal to do so; we wouldn't allow our schools to sell violent video games; we just know intrins

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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