By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer
When candy bars and chips disappeared from the halls of Marshall Junior High School last year, 15-year-old Ollie Moore felt a little jilted.
“Everybody liked that kind of food and they took it away. A lot of kids complained,” Moore said of an administration decision to ban food vending machines from the school.
The school is on the tail end of a nationwide effort to sweep schools of foods high in sugar, and replace them with high protein snacks, said Marshall Principal Diana Russell. This year, many other schools in the district will follow Marshall’s lead by offering healthier food choices at snack bars.
Instead of soda, the school offers water or Gatorade at its snack bar and, in the place of chips, peanuts, crackers, granola bars, and fruit.
“We don’t want junk food sold on our campus,” said Russell, who plans to target cafeteria menus next, by revamping the salad bar and providing more non-fat salad dressings.
Russell is not alone in her crusade. An Albuquerque group of doctors, nutritionists, teachers and parents is putting pressure on the state to eliminate or strongly regulate snack and soda vending machines in schools across the state.
According to Plains Regional Medical Group pediatrician Kathryn Winters, pressure to change school food policy will, in the future, likely increase due to the growing obesity rates among America’s youth.
“I am all for personal responsibility — everyone should be able to make an informed decision about what they put in their mouths. But with school children, we don’t expect them to act like adults,” Winters said.
“In my opinion, sugar drinks should not be available on school grounds. Sugar can affect how a child behaves. When you eat or drink a lot of refined sugar, your body puts out more insulin, which causes your blood sugar level to drop. Attentiveness and mood can be affected negatively. The only thing that can make you feel better is eating another load of sugar,” Winters said.
The sugar experiment at Marshall supports the doctor’s testimony. According to Russell, shortly after food vending machines were banned, teachers noticed a drastic change in student behavior.
“We had teachers immediately tell us that students, especially after lunch, were much more focused and ready to learn. Behavior in the hallways is better — it is not as loud as it once was. The overall state of the students is much more calm,” Russell said.
The Clovis Municipal School District is acutely aware of just how important food is to student success, said Food Service Director Judy Abernathy. The district follows strict USDA guidelines when preparing menus, and each school has its own Nutrition Advisory Council, comprised of students, parents, and administration, she said.
There is even a school board policy that outlines the district’s dedication to increasing healthy food options in schools.
“The new chef salad is very popular among students. I was so happy about that,” Abernathy said. But ask a student what there favorite menu item is, said Abernathy, and the answer will still most likely be pizza or french fries.
Although it may be easy to end the reign of food vending machines, fast food chains won’t be as easy to dismantle, say many health food advocates. They have a foot hold on street corners, and in schools — the Clovis High School cafeteria is host to Pizza Hut, Papa John’s, Domino’s, Arby’s, and McDonald’s.
“All of those chains were selected through a student survey to encourage them to stay on campus for lunch,” Abernathy said, adding that lines for chain foods and cafeteria provided foods are usually equal.
Sixteen-year-old Clovis High School student, Mel Grassle, said he would be upset if current food and vending machine options at the high school were snatched away.
“It’s not like one bag of chips will make you fat for the rest of your life,” Grassle said.