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Healthy Snacks in Store for Arlington Schools?

Arlington's school system may jettison its vending machines filled with unhealthy snacks and drinks.

So long, Twix, Skittles, Snickers and Starburst.

Hello, low-fat, low-sodium, low-sugar, whole-grain granola bars.

Arlington's school system is weighing a plan to replace the unhealthy offerings in each school's vending machines with nutritious snacks and beverages.

"We want to make certain that we're providing better, more healthy and more nutritious offerings in our vending machines," said Superintendent Robert Smith.

Over the past year, the Arlington Comprehensive School Health Committee — composed of parents and educators — has studied the issue of unhealthy snacks in school vending machines. The committee concluded that the school system is exposing students to low-nutrient, high-sugar foods and drinks, contributing to youth obesity and poor eating habits.

As a result, the committee urged Arlington Public Schools to replace its 26 snack machines, 70 soda machines and three juice machines at 26 school facilities.

On July 28, the school system solicited bids to identify vendors willing to provide healthier snacks. School officials hope to roll out the healthy snacks and drinks later this fall.

"The students themselves are asking for help," said Jim Rock, a former PTA president at Wakefield High School. "They're not asking for tofu bars, but they clearly want healthier options in the vending machines."

UNDER THE NEW GUIDELINES, traditional vending machine fare, such as candy and chips, would be largely nixed in favor of nuts, trail mix, low-fat cookies, packaged vegetables, and low-fat pretzels.

To be considered acceptable under the new guidelines, the vending machine snacks must contain no trans-fat, fewer than 150 milligrams of sodium and little sugar. Items that are particularly nutritious would be encouraged, especially snacks containing vitamins A and C, high amounts of fiber and whole grains.

Instead of sugary sodas or sports drinks, many of the beverage machines would instead offer water, reduced-fat or skim milk, and fruit-based drinks with at least 25 percent juice.

While sodas would not be entirely barred from the schools, sales of soft drinks — which typically contain 250 calories and 17 teaspoons of sugar in a 20-ounce bottle — would be significantly curtailed.

Soda machines are not available for students in elementary schools. At the county's middle and high schools, soft drinks are only available after school lets out for the afternoon.

The new guidelines are an amalgamation of two suggested guidelines produced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest.

A list of acceptable snacks and drinks is still being compiled. Students gave feedback on many of the healthy choices at five food tastings held over the past year.

"This is a work in progress," said Alvin Crawley, assistant superintendent for student services. "We will continue to seek input from staff and students."

BEFORE THE EXISTING vending machines can be replaced with the healthier options, the Arlington School Board must approve the new policy. The Board is scheduled to vote on the issue at its Sept. 22 meeting.

While it appears the majority of the School Board members support adopting the new policy, several questions remain unanswered.

For one thing, the school system is not sure how much the healthy snacks initiative will actually cost.

Revenue generated by each vending machine is retained by the individual school and dedicated toward the school's activity fund, paying for field trips, school fairs and more.

By offering health food instead of junk food, vending machine sales could decline. School Board Chair David Foster said a new policy might help dissuade the schools from profiting from its students' sweet tooth.

"It's always struck me that [vending machine profits] provide a perverse incentive for the schools," he said. "They might possibly sell the wrong sort of things."

THOUGH HAPPY that it appears the school system is moving to a healthier path for its vending machine offerings, Rock said Arlington's school cafeterias still do not promote healthy eating. Typical lunch lines, he said, too often offer students fatty hamburgers, pizzas and French fries.

"We have a lot of room for improvement, but this is a good first step," he said.