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Losing money, Seattle schools may ease ban on junk foods

Hungry high-school students in Seattle who want a quick snack between classes can buy orange juice, water and granola bars from school vending machines, but little else.

Their choices are limited in fat, sugar, and portion size, making Seattle one of the school districts with the strictest bans on junk food in the country. Approved in 2004, the ban hasn't gone over well with students, who say the absence of less-than-wholesome food has cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars in vending machine profits over the past seven years.

In 2001, before the Seattle School Board adopted the ban on junk food, high-school associated student body (ASB) governments across the city earned $214,000 in profits from vending machines, according to a district spokeswoman. So far this year they’ve earned only $17,000.

The ASB organizations use the money to support a variety of school activities, athletics and clubs.

"The question is did we go too far?" Michael DeBell, Seattle School Board president, said Monday.  "If the students aren’t finding the offerings to their liking, then we're not really meeting that goal of having them choose healthier foods."

DeBell said the school board has been unable to find other ways to fund the student groups. "We are cutting our budget every year," he said. Now the district is looking at relaxing its snack food policy next fall.

Schools across the country are struggling to find ways to clean up their vending machines without losing the revenue they generate.

"Most districts are trying to implement healthy guidelines and are trying to limit fat and portion size," said Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations for the Maryland-based School Nutrition Association.

Schools that don't make the changes on their own will soon be required to under the new Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, passed by Congress in 2010.  

"The law requires the U.S.  Department of Agriculture to develop nutrition standards for 'competitive foods' sold during the entire school day," Pratt-Heavner said. Those standards are likely to consider the Institute of Medicine’s recommended competitive food standards, released in 2007, which advocate making fruits, vegetables and whole grains more available. The federal law is expected to go into effect in 2013.

DeBell said any loosening of Seattle's policy would simply allow a greater variety of healthy items, not candy bars, chips and sodas. One possible snack is a popular but healthy ice cream sandwich.

DeBell acknowledged that changes to Seattle’s policy could be upended by the strict federal law. But he said there's still an opportunity to introduce new products to the vending machines in the interim to win over students and boost revenue.

"We have a window," he said. "I like where the federal government is going with nutrition, but then again Congress just made pizza a vegetable."

"We'll see where it all lands."


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