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Unhealthful food in schools? Not so fast, Pa. legislator says

Rep. Mike Gerber's bill would ban sodas and fatty snacks. Districts are wary of more rules.

HARRISBURG - Forget Coke, Pepsi, or Mountain Dew. Think water, milk (the low-fat kind), and 100 percent fruit juice.

And don't dare daydream of candy bars, chips, or even many cereal bars.

Those, too, would be outlawed under a new set of strict nutritional guidelines for food sold in public schools across the state if Montgomery County Rep. Mike Gerber has any say.

Gerber, a Democrat, has introduced a bill that would cut out most opportunity for schools to sell sugary drinks and fat-laden munchies, either in their vending machines or in cafeteria a la carte lines.

Fresh off watching the irreverent documentary Super Size Me, about one man's experience eating fast food for 30 days, in 2007 Gerber began compiling some alarming statistics on childhood obesity. The one that stood out to him: 17 percent of Pennsylvania schoolchildren are overweight, according to the state Department of Health.

"That one really gets me," Gerber said last week.

"There is no question enforcing mandates like this will make our schools a healthier environment for our kids," he added. "And this is what parents want. . . . They want to know that when their kids go off to school - a place where they spend a considerable amount of time - that they will have healthy food choices."

Gerber's bill would ban in public schools the sale of beverages other than water, reduced-fat milk, and juices made from 100 percent juice. It also would ban the sale of snacks that have more than 100 calories, more than 30 percent of total calories from fat, more than 35 percent weight from added sugars, and more than 230 milligrams of sodium.

The legislation also would require schools to offer students the choice of at least two fruits or nonfried vegetables each day in their cafeterias' a la carte menus.

"To me, this bill makes a lot of sense," Gerber said, adding that, in a show of bipartisanship, the measure is being cosponsored by Republican Rep. Mike Turzai of Allegheny County.

Still, many school officials and districts in the state are wary of a mandate or believe it is redundant since their nutritional standards are already strict.

They say they are complying with federal laws requiring all districts to implement "wellness" policies. In doing so, they have taken steps to limit the availability of fattening drinks and snacks not just inside the cafeteria but also in vending machines and classroom parties.

Philadelphia schools, for instance, ban the sale of soda and do not sell (or serve) candy during the school day, according to its wellness policy.

In Abington's school district, there are no vending machines in elementary schools, and those available to the junior high and high school crowd must carry a majority of items that aren't fried and have minimal to no trans fat, according to its wellness policy. There are no soda machines except in faculty lounges, school officials added.

Judy Bomze, director of pupil services for Abington's school district, said even if Gerber's mandate became law, it wouldn't represent a major change: "For us, it was something we were doing anyway."

Rich Webb, food-service director for Bristol Township schools, echoed the sentiment. The district's schools do not have vending machines for snacks, he said, and the soda machines are turned off during regular school hours.

"Pennsylvania is way out ahead of the curve," Webb said.

As for the students, some believe the bill would not only limit choice but also show a lack of confidence in their ability to make good food choices.

"By now, as teenagers, we should know what to eat," said Casey Rankowski, 16, a Perkiomen Valley High sophomore who was lunching on a cheesesteak and a cup of watermelon chunks last week.

"If we get fat from eating junk food, that's our fault," he added.

Perkiomen Valley sophomore Alaina Prevot, 16, usually buys a salad or a soft pretzel for lunch and thinks students might be discouraged from buying lunch at school if their options were limited. (The bill would not prevent students from bringing in snacks or drinks from home.)

"People buy for convenience, but if there's no food they want, they would just bring it from home," Prevot said.

And anyway, she added, "we're only in high school. It shouldn't matter how many calories we eat."