Calories Count at Montgomery County Schools

Schools add calorie data to cafeteria menus

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    NEWSLETTERS

    NBCWashington.com

    The Washington Post reported this morning that Montgomery County schools have started posting calorie information in school cafeterias.

    The county has a new law requiring food outlets with more than 20 locations to post such information, and while the county may have had McDonald’s in mind, the school system falls into that category, too.

    As the Post observed, the nation is in the midst of a push to “combat childhood obesity and improve the quality and healthfulness of the foods children eat.” Official childhood obesity rates have tripled since 1980, and first lady Michelle Obama has made the problem her key issue.

    Though the change was mandated by law, school officials are making the most of it. Marla Caplon, director of food services for the school system, told the Post, “This is a perfect way to integrate what's a requirement so that parents and students can really see that our students are healthy.”

    When British chef Jamie Oliver tried to change the eating habits of Huntington, W. Va., by reforming the offerings of the school system’s cafeterias, he encountered bureaucratic bottlenecks, economic difficulties and ingrained cultural realities. He was baffled to learn that the USDA classifies French fries as a vegetable and was flummoxed when he learned that cafeterias were not allowed to let students eat with knives.

    A few months after Oliver’s experiment, schools were again serving processed food, and many students were bringing unhealthy “meals” from home. One of these consisted of potato chips and jelly beans – and nothing else.

    So maybe the Montgomery County approach is a happy medium – it provides information and lets students and families make their own choices. One honest 14-year-old told the Post, “The snack line is all junk food. I like it. If they changed it I would hate the school.” (Caplon pointed out that even the junk foods sold at the schools are those awful reduced fat versions.)

    The schools need to be wary, however. Body image is a challenging issue for many young people, and approximately 10 percent of U.S. teenagers suffer some sort of eating disorder. This useful information could be misused by some young people to feed into their existing anxieties.