America's soft drink industry has taken some of the heat off the Lawrence school board. An announcement last week by the American Beverage Assn., that it would remove sugary soft drinks from school vending machines to fight childhood obesity, is a strong endorsement of one part of a policy already under consideration by the Lawrence board. It also pretty much takes that decision out of the board's hands, because whether or not the board takes action to reduce soft drink sales in schools, the industry action means only diet soda, milk and fruit juices will be available in vending machines within a couple of years.
However, health experts and local school officials agree that soft drinks are only part of the problem. The policy under consideration by the board also includes serious restrictions on candy and sugary snacks at school. The plan would ban candy sales from vending machines in the high school until after lunch and allow no more than half of the school's fundraisers to be "food-related."
The provision that has caused, perhaps, the greatest outcry is the plan to instruct parents and parent groups not to send sweets to school for parties and award ceremonies. A cupcake for a birthday party never hurt anyone, many parents say, but it also can be argued that children should learn there are ways to celebrate events without consuming high-calorie food.
The "wellness" policy also has prompted criticism of the school district's lunch program, which many people say also is a contributing factor to childhood obesity. A look at the school district's lunch menus for May seemed to show that sugar-laden food probably isn't the biggest menu problem.
Dessert most often consisted of fruit or applesauce. Out of the whole month, children were scheduled to get one chocolate chip cookie, one ice cream cup and one frozen fruit bar, which seems pretty moderate. However, probably in an attempt to please young appetites, the schools are offering many main dishes that seem heavy on fat calories.
Cheeseburgers, hamburgers and pizza were offered more than once. Entree choices for three consecutive days in the middle of May included chicken strips, macaroni and cheese and Polish sausage. Even when dessert consists of orange wedges or sliced pears, those lunches probably carry some high calorie counts. The critics probably are right, that schools also should look at their lunches if they want to promote healthy eating among students.
Moderate consumption of sugary or high-fat foods may not be unhealthy, but making such healthy choices is an acquired skill that many young children haven't mastered. Even though students and some parents may rebel at vending machine and snack restrictions, the schools have a role to play in promoting healthy eating along with exercise and other healthy habits. The soft drink industry has eased the implementation of one strategy, but the school board shouldn't give up on other efforts.