BENNINGTON -- In an attempt to curb child obesity, federal regulations have cleaned school cafeteria menus of foods that lack nutritional value. But those restrictions do not exist beyond the cafeteria walls.
Some school officials believe the lack of nutrition guidelines elsewhere on campuses flies in the face of the federal guidelines and encourages students to spend their lunch money on junk foods sold elsewhere on campus -- such as school stores.
Students at Mount Anthony Union High School, for example, have a choice of cafeteria options -- such as whole wheat spaghetti or a sandwich with a piece of fruit and a vegetable -- or they can walk a short distance to the connecting Southwest Vermont Career Development Center store.
A variety store
The store appears similar to the interior of a variety store in both its looks and its food options. Although it stopped selling soda a few years ago, unhealthy foods still fill many of the shelves. From candy bars, cinnamon buns, cookies, candies, chocolates, and rows upon rows of chips, it is not difficult to fill a plate with snacks having little to no nutritional value.
Students willing to talk about their preference for the less healthy options were difficult to find, but members of the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union’s Food Service Advisory Committee (FSAC) shared stories last week of students who avoid the cafeteria in favor of loading up on snacks from the store.
One member, Gene Rowley, said high school boys he mentors talk to him about picking up Pop Tarts, cookies and coffee from the store every day. Maureen O’Neil, director of The Abbey Group, which operates the MAUHS cafeteria, said she believes there are many students who choose snacks from the school store instead of a healthy lunch.
The assertion that the CDC store competes with the high school cafeteria was rejected by James Culkeen, director and superintendent of the technical school. The CDC shares a building with MAUHS but it is its own district and supervisory union.
"I don’t feel that we’re competing with the lunch program. It’s not open when the cafeteria is open," Culkeen said.
Culkeen said he has had discussions with marketing teacher Neal Hogan, whose class operates the store, about offering more healthy options.
"It definitely is a concern. To be honest, when I first came here a year ago I was kind of surprised by what is sold in the school store, whether it’s off-hours or not," Culkeen said. "They’re looking at healthier options. They removed some products (such as soda) already."
The scenario is not unique to Bennington, according to Laurie Colgan, director of child nutrition programs with the Vermont Department of Education. Already this year, Colgan has heard similar concerns from two other high schools in the state.
"Where we see the greatest challenge is schools connected to technical centers. It is a challenge in every school with a technical center with it," Colgan said.
Whether high school parents or administrators agree with the items being sold at stores in adjoining schools or not, there is little that can be done other than ask the store to refrain -- which Culkeen said has not formally happened.
Federal law prohibits the sale of foods of "minimal nutritional value ... in the food service areas during the lunch periods." Such foods include soda, hard and soft candies, flavored ices and gum containing sugar, although "food service area" is specific to the cafeteria, Colgan said. The United States Department of Agriculture is in the process of drafting changes to the law, but there currently is nothing on federal nor state books restricting the sale of those items outside cafeterias, Colgan said.
In 2004 every school district in the state was required to create a wellness policy. In some cases those locally developed policies restrict the sale of unhealthy foods throughout entire school campuses.
A wellness policy does not seem to exist within the CDC. Culkeen, who is beginning his second year at the helm, said he does not know of a wellness policy and there is not one listed on the school’s Web page.
All SVSU schools have a policy stating foods -- to the extent practicable -- should comply with guidelines proposed by the state departments of health and education, which suggests only foods with greater than minimum nutritional value be sold in schools. Colgan said even though the CDC leases space from MAUHS, the high school’s wellness policy has no bearing on the technical center.
"If it is outside the cafeteria the current regulations would allow it," Colgan said. "Until we see this guidance or this proposed rule coming down from USDA, what we have to look at ... is each school’s actual wellness policy."
Colgan’s opinion varied from what Richard Pembroke, who oversees the FSAC in his role as chief financial officer for SVSU, said he has been told by the USDA. The entire FSAC agreed last week its next course of action should be to send a cease and desist order to the CDC regarding the sale of junk food, although Colgan said as the law now stands she does not see merit for such an order.
The loophole has drawn criticism in recent years, although more attention is being brought to it this school year as new federal cafeteria regulations have trimmed portions, cut back salt, and added a requirement for more whole wheat products. With many students -- both locally and across the country -- grumbling about the options they now see in cafeterias, more and more are visiting school stores to find unhealthy snacks, O’Neil said.
"You’re taking money away from a reimbursable national school lunch program backed by the federal government by having non-nutritional value food being sold and competing with your national school lunch program," O’Neil said at last week’s FSAC meeting.
The government has also taken note of the inequity. New laws are expected to be passed sometime this fall that implement similar restrictions already in place in cafeterias throughout school campuses.
"In conjunction with the recent sweeping changes with respect to the school breakfasts and lunches ... if we are requiring school cafeterias to provide healthy meals we need to continue that thread and connection through all the other sales in the school," Colgan said. "We’re anticipating that when this rule comes out it will provide some leeway for school functions that are raising money for a field trip (or other specific school event) ... but at the same time we think it’s going to require schools to be more thoughtful about what types of food they’re selling and when they’re being sold."
In addition to restricting the sale of foods with minimal nutritional values, Colgan said the new law is expected to limit the availability of food sold outside the cafeteria to times when the cafeteria is not open. That way those sources are not competing with federally reimbursed school lunch programs.
Neal Hogan, who teaches the marketing program that operates the CDC store, noted that with the exception of a 20-minute window, the store is closed for all of the lunch periods at MAUHS.
Hogan defended the school store and the products it sells. He also said it is important to point out that water is its top selling product. Through the store students learn marketing, retail, advertising, product placement and a number of other skills that cannot be taught as effectively being confined to a traditional classroom. Revenue from the store is reinvested in the marketing program, helping to pay for field trips to conferences and competitions as well as materials, Hogan said.
At last week’s FSAC meeting, members said students would still be able to learn those same skills if they sold nutritional items.
"There are plenty of healthy snacks and healthy things that they could probably sell to meet the guidelines and still help them raise money," said Maria Lenoue, who teaches at Mount Anthony Union Middle School.
Pembroke added that students may learn even more by selling healthier food. "They would get more marketing skills trying to sell granola bars than they are selling Milky Ways," he said.
Colgan acknowledged program-operated school stores are in a difficult predicament as they are challenged to be successful but also responsible.
"Their intent is to get experience with ordering, forecasting, selling, marketing, all of the pieces we want our students to learn about business administration, however it sort of flies in the face of what’s happening in another area of the school program, which is the service and implementation of healthy meals," she said.
Colgan said technical centers could use the opportunity as a teachable moment by substituting unhealthy products with more nutritious ones. "It could be a great learning process if they were to be faced with the challenge of what if we had these regulations we had to put in place, how would that affect what we sell," she said.
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