Lisley Anco, a senior at Washington-Lee High School, looks down at the greasy pepperoni pizza and hash browns sitting on her lunch tray with disdain, before pushing them aside.
Though the school cafeteria offers an assortment of yogurts, fruits and salads, the other seven students at Anco’s table are also eating pizza. Several of them consume nothing else for lunch.
“I don’t like this food,” Anco said. “It’s pretty unhealthy. I wish we had more entrée choices, like pastas.”
In the cafeteria line, four students in a row purchase only a slice of pizza, much to the chagrin of Rosa Rivero, the cashier.
“It’s always pizza, pizza, pizza,” Rivero said. “At least today we aren’t serving french fries.”
In an effort to stem rising obesity rates among adolescents, school systems across the country are taking a second look at what they offer students for lunch. Arlington school officials are beginning to re-evaluate the nutritional value of school dishes and are searching for new ways to induce students to make healthier choices.
In September, the School Board voted to ban sodas and sports drinks in student vending machines and replace them with nutritional alternatives, such as water, reduced fat milk and fruit juices. Several years ago, the number of days per week that french fries were served was reduced from five to three.
Now some parents and School Board members are pushing for stricter regulations on what students can consume in cafeterias. But others in the community caution against further interference in the school menu, and argue that more time and money should be spent educating parents and students on the importance of a healthy diet and regular exercise.
Earlier this month the School Board gave its approval for the creation of a School Food Services Advisory Committee, composed of 20 school staff members, parents and students. The group will review existing policies and make recommendations to Superintendent Robert Smith on ways to improve student access to more nutritional foods and beverages.
The committee is also scheduled to develop a public awareness campaign to promote better eating and exercise habits among students, and will review the financial implications of any changes to the school menu.
“The committee is charged with looking at the foods served in the school system, but this will be done in the context of promoting healthier eating habits,” said Alvin Crawley, assistant superintendent for student services. “Part of this work is to do more nutritional education with the students, so they can make better decisions about what foods to eat.”
The committee will meet four times a year and is expected to have its first full report by late fall, school officials said. Applications are still being accepted for the parent and student positions.
DURING THE DEBATE over vending machines, many parents expressed a desire for school officials to go further in improving the nutritional quality of what is being offered for school meals.
“Parents came out of the woodwork and said ‘we’re glad you’re doing something about the vending machines, but what about the school lunches,’” said School Board member Mary Hynes. “The best thing we could do was to establish a group, take their energy and ideas and work with the system.”
Some have suggested that the school system further curtail how often fattening foods are offered.
“I want them to get rid of fries and pizza, or at least to reduce the number of times it is served each week,” said Anne Reynolds, president of the County Council of PTAs. “The school has a role to play in providing the kinds of nutrition-rich foods students need.”
Arlington schools “can do a lot better to make sure healthy food is available,” School Board member Ed Fendley said. Because students who eat nourishing foods tend to perform better in the classroom, it is imperative that the school system works to ensure they eat breakfast and avoid fatty foods, Fendley added.
Others in the community believe the School Board should be wary of changing the school menu, which meets USDA standards.
Instead of controlling what students eat for lunch, Arlington schools should invest more time and money in health education classes, School Board member Frank Wilson said. Wilson was the sole member of the School Board to vote against barring sodas from student vending machines.
“We have to teach kids as early as possible about what is a healthy diet, and then give them the opportunity to make their own decision,” Wilson said. “We can’t spoon feed kids and expect them to make the right decisions.”
Any education campaign must extend to parents, because those are the people who have the true power to change eating habits, Wilson added.
MOST STUDENTS interviewed in the Washington-Lee cafeteria expressed doubt that changes in school lunches would have any lasting impact on students’ diets. Seniors are allowed to go off campus for lunch, and almost 30 percent of students do not participate in the Arlington food services program.
“Realistically, if kids want to eat fries, they will just go to McDonald’s after school,” said William Cullin, a junior. “Many already do.”
Sophomore Antoine Williams, who was eating only a single slice of pizza for lunch, said he knows that pizza isn’t good for him, but bought the dish “because I like it.” Williams said he only eats pizza once a week and does not believe the School Board should have the authority to stop him from purchasing it on the day he chooses.
Hynes said she is exploring ways to give students more information on the food offered each day, and would like to introduce more fresh fruits and vegetables. In the Washington-Lee cafeteria there is a large poster that gives the fat and caloric content of each entrée item.
She is also interested in providing snacks either before classes begin or toward the end of the day to boost students’ attention and achievement.
In a time of declining student enrollment and a smaller budget, school officials will have to balance the costs of introducing new food options. But Hynes is convinced that the extra money would pay large dividends.
“Our kids live in a fast-food environment, where they eat pizza and microwave food when they get home,” she said. “It’s our challenge to help them understand that they need to eat better.”