Grassroots rebellion against the food Fascists

What's good and bad for you is all a matter of opinion -- the science is all up in the air -- but you would never know it from listening to the ostensible "do-gooders". And some of the things that they allow -- such as milk -- are high in calories anyway!

The 12- and 13-year-olds dug candies out of their pockets and backpacks, devouring them as appetizers, desserts, or substitutes for lunch in the Boston middle school cafeteria. One girl squeezed Xtra Sour Goo Candy from a pink tube and licked the drops of strawberry-flavored sugar from her palm. She sprayed another sour candy from a pump into her mouth, while a classmate sucked a giant diamond-shaped candy in a plastic ring on her hand.

The children attend Mildred Avenue Middle School, which has banned soda and junk food from its one vending machine and instead stocks it with low-fat yogurt, cheddar cheese cubes, and calcium-infused orange juice. With its candy-chomping pupils and its healthy vending machine, the Mattapan school models the problem as well as a possible solution for improving children's nutrition, an issue the state Senate is to tackle today. The Senate plans to debate whether to limit the sale of high-calorie snacks and sugar-laden soft drinks in school vending machines.

The bill, which comes amid similar efforts by school systems across the nation, is likely to pass the Senate, but it would need approval from the House and Governor Mitt Romney. Its prospects are unclear in the House, where a more stringent bill has been under consideration. A spokesman for Romney was noncommittal yesterday on the measure.

Like Mildred Avenue in Dorchester, dozens of schools across the Bay State -- including some in Natick, Framingham, Billerica, and Marlborough -- offer vending machines stocked exclusively with healthy choices. But a lunchtime visit to Mildred Avenue yesterday showed that school officials and lawmakers cannot control what students eat by changing what is sold in vending machines. Children bring candy and other snacks from home or buy them on their way to school. And they don't think the proposed law would change their eating habits. ''Sometimes, we have headaches and we need sugar in our heads," said Yarmisha Cofield, a Mildred Avenue seventh-grader who ate the $1.29 tube of sour candy and only picked at her school lunch of fried chicken. Her friend Europe Thomas, 12, had spent $2 on a bag of chocolates at a convenience store and ate them before lunch. An unfinished tray of chicken, peaches, and chocolate milk sat before her. ''I'm not in the mood for it," Thomas said.

Senate leaders say their bill is designed more to educate pupils from a young age about healthy eating habits than to outlaw junk food. ''We think we need to move in a phased approach and not come down with a hammer right away," said Senator Richard T. Moore, chairman of the Joint Health Care Financing Committee and an Uxbridge Democrat.

Child obesity can lead to diabetes, asthma, and heart disease and affect students' capacity to learn, Senate President Robert E. Travaglini said yesterday during a meeting with reporters to unveil the proposal. The bill, following guidelines recommended by the American Beverage Association, which represents Coca-Cola and Pepsi, would ban soft drinks from vending machines in elementary schools. The machines would be allowed to sell only water, 100 percent fruit juices, and low-fat or nonfat milk during the school day. Middle schools would be allowed to sell sports drinks, low-calorie juice drinks, and zero-calorie sodas. High schools could stock their vending machines with soda as long as healthy alternatives are available in at least equal quantity. Schools would also have to limit the calories in vending machine snacks. The House bill goes further by banning all soda and sports drinks during school hours at all three school levels and by regulating the fats, sugars, and carbohydrates -- in addition to calories -- of snacks sold in school vending machines.

Senate leaders cast their bill as a compromise, saying they wanted to balance the need to improve childhood nutrition with concerns from school systems and the food and beverage industry about losing revenue from vending machines. Representative Peter Koutoujian, a Waltham Democrat who sponsored the House measure, said he is disappointed that his bill is being overshadowed by the Senate compromise. Sue Burchill, the nurse at Mildred Avenue School, said the Senate bill does not go far enough and a comprehensive vending machine junk food and soda ban is necessary precisely because students sneak in candy and chips from home. ''They are not capable of making good choices at this age, so you have to do it for them," she said.

Sixth-grader Oscar Villanova, 12, bought orange juice and cheddar cheese sticks from the school vending machine to supplement his lunch of chicken, apple, and milk. He said he would have preferred chips.



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