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Vending Machines in Fairfax Schools Healthy

Food Services practices what they preach.

09/22: usd hr

With childhood obesity rates on the rise and studies released that show number of children eating meals with the proper nutrition has declined, the Fairfax County department of food and nutritional services is working to educate children to make the healthy choice.

"This school district, from its inception, has always had a strong nutritional philosophy," said Penny McConnell, director of food and nutritional services for the county's public schools.

McConnell said the county follows the state and federal laws set for the official school lunch program, but they also take the next step to reflect those laws with vending machine snacks.

"We're trying to go just a little further to give them choices," said McConnell who has worked with the food and nutrition services for 39 years. "At the elementary school level we can groom them, exercise nutritional education in the classroom and we can mold a younger child to eat healthier."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture sets standards for nutrient content and portion sizes for the official school meals said McConnell, but it has little authority outside of the a la carte menu.

McConnell, who is also a registered dietitian, said the county tries to uphold the USDA's nutritional regulations in the vending machines placed in district's schools.

She explained that vending machines are primarily placed in middle and high schools, and offer students either reduced fat or baked foods as well as water and juice that is at least 25 percent fruit.

Lucinda Romberg, principal at Dranesville Elementary School in Herndon, said that although her school does have vending machines, the only snacks supplied are in the faculty lounge, not in the students' lunchroom.

"In the elementary schools you don't have too many vending machines," said Romberg. "Our one has fruit juice only."

THE DISTRICT'S a la carte lunch program offers students the proper size portions and nutritional standards, said McConnell, but she added they can't control what or how much students eat if they bring lunch from home, or where the high school students choose to eat.

"I am amazed at how many kids bring in soda and candy in their lunch from home," said McConnell. "I feel as far as county issue is concerned it's a partnership with parents, students, teachers and school community working with us."

McConnell said their motive, serve nutrition, talk nutrition and teach nutrition is only effective when the school community gets involved.

"Our students are offered a la carte items," said Romberg about lunch at Dranesville and whether students need a vending machine. "They don't have the free time to be spending at a vending machine."

McConnell said the vending machines primarily serve as an accessory to student's lunches, a way to buy a juice or water with their food so they don't wait in the a la carte line.

"Nothing may be sold in compliance with the school lunch program during the school day," said McConnell.

AT THE HIGH SCHOOLS, it is different because of after-school activities.

"We have very little to do with the vending machines," said Janice Leslie, Herndon High School principal, explaining that the county controls what food they receive.

Although the district's high schools have more options in their vending machines, McConnell said the ones that sell soft drinks and chips operate on a timer so that they don't turn on until the school day has ended.

The county bases the food sold on a Food and Nutritional Services Manual which lists rules for food sold within the school district, as well as federal and state laws.

The following foods are not sold on school premises to students from the start of school to the last lunch period:

Soda water, frozen desserts and certain candies.

McConnell said the next step in the county's nutrition plan is to place posters that use the red, yellow and green of a stop light to show children what are good and bad food choices.

"We'll be putting up posters in October that look at the a la carte and items limited in fat," said McConnell.

The list includes: best choices, better choices and limit choices.

OF THOSE, the best choices include snacks that are baked, reduced fat desserts, frozen fruit juice bars and beverages that are 100 percent fruit juice, low fat milk or water.

The better choices include ice cream, sun chips or Doritos, trail mix and beverages that are sports drinks or 25 percent fruit juice with fortified calcium.

The limit choices include regular chips and crackers, pastries, noodle soups, and regular cookies.

"Is it wrong for a child to have the choice of French fries?" asked McConnell about the school lunch program. "No, because [potatoes] are a good food. But, it's not OK at the super-sized portions."

McConnell said the hope of the posters is that students at all levels will take the nutritional messages and try to implement healthier eating habits.

"If these children are starting off at that age with soft drinks and French fries," said McConnell about a report showing the average vegetable among young children was French fries, "then that's just atrocious."

McConnell added healthy nutrition starts at home.

"We only have them for one meal a day," said McConnell. "As a parent, if they have a healthy snack prepared for them when they come home from school, they'll learn what to eat."

But, while in the schools, McConnell said the county will do what it can to exemplify healthy eating.

"I think we have to be the role model," said McConnell. "There is a relationship between our cafeteria and the school classroom, that's why our teachers learn about nutrition ... we play an important role to make sure students learn."