A few years ago, Maria Ortiz-Malte realized the money in her son’s school lunch account was going faster than it should have been.
Twenty dollars would disappear by the end of the week.
“I would ask him where it went, he would say ‘I don’t know mom, maybe someone else — one of my friends — is using my number,’” said Ortiz-Malte, whose son is a sixth-grader at Westland Middle School.
When Ortiz-Malte went to the school to investigate, she found that it was the extra food her son was buying — ice cream, chips and other snacks — that was depleting her account.
Ortiz-Malte, and other parents with children in Montgomery County Public Schools, are joining together to see that more parents know that their children can use their lunch money not only to buy lunch, but also “a la carte” snacks. Eventually, the parents want to see some of these items and other items in vending machines that they consider to be junk food are removed from schools completely.
Two parents, Karen Devitt and Lindsey Parsons, are leading the charge. They have worked since June to develop a group they labeled Real Food for Kids — Montgomery. By announcing meetings on parent listservs over the last few months, they have gathered 75 parents from 40 schools who are willing to represent their schools in advocacy work on the issue.
Their main claim is that Montgomery parents don’t know that their children have other options besides what is on the menu.
“I am appalled at the list of ingredients of these things that our children are eating,” said Devitt, whose daughter is in seventh grade at Silver Spring International Middle School.
Marla Caplon, director of food and nutrition services for the school system, said she is listening to the group.
Parents will notice a change to the school lunch menu in April, as Caplon has added a blurb on the top of the menu that explains how snacks, beyond what is listed on the menu, are served. She is also creating a template for principals to send out at the beginning of the year that lets parents know what is served at their childrens’ school, she said.
Devitt said she was glad to hear about the changes, but she had hoped that the wording would also include a point she said is crucial: Parents can restrict the items their children purchase by calling their child’s school or the school system.
Devitt questions if the school system has intentionally left parents in the dark, because of the money the school system brings in from its sales.
Last school year, the school system’s food and nutrition services fund, which is separate from its overall budget, collected about $1.42 million from a la carte sales at elementary schools and about $74,564 from vending machines. Together, that is about 2.7 percent of the department’s funding.
At middle and high schools, the school system collects millions more from a la carte items, but that includes all lunch items purchased separately, such as hamburgers and french fries, Caplon said.
Caplon said the money the system collects to sell these items helps make up for the money the school system loses making and selling school meals. This school year each meal may cost about $4 to produce, while children pay between $2.50 and $2.75. For each lunch served to low-income students on a free or reduced-price meal plan last year, the system lost about 76 cents.
And as the school system attempts to make meals healthier, the costs continue to rise.
There has to be some way to make up for the funds, Caplon said.
“We have a struggle here,” she said.
A la carte foods include Rice Krispies Mini Treat, baked Cheetos, reduced fat Doritos, and ice cream treats such as ice cream cups and sandwiches, shortcake bars, and a snack labeled “Fudge Frenzy.” In vending machines, which are in most middle and high schools but only in staff lounges at elementary schools, students can buy the non-frozen a la carte items listed above, as well as chocolate chip cookies and other snacks.
All of the items meet the school board’s nutritional standards for food and beverages served during the instructional day, such as calories from total fat below 35 percent per serving, saturated fat below 10 percent per serving, and total sugar at or below 35 percent sugar by weight, Caplon said.
When asked if Doritos are healthy, Caplon said, “Any food item eaten in moderation and occassionally is not a good or bad food.”
“If you are eating Doritos and water every day for lunch, no it is not OK,” Caplon said. “But occasionally, is it OK for kids to have a baked Doritos snack? Yes.”
Devitt and Ortiz-Malte realize that most of the responsibility is on the parents to educate themselves and prevent their children from eating the food.
But middle school students are impulsive, Ortiz-Malte said.
Her son is so informed he is reading labels now, she said.
“But if he is offered snacks, he’ll eat them,” she said.
Regulating how many snacks children take at school is up to each cafeteria manager, Caplon said; the school system does not set limits. Principals select what food their school will offer, and they are the ones that make the rules about purchases, she said.
Caplon recently heard that one school principal limits children to one snack per lunch.
After Devitt presented her concerns to the school board Tuesday, board member Patricia B. O’Neill asked staff togive the board more information about the food that is served.
Devitt earlier said she was encouraged that the system is taking steps to address parent concerns.
But really, schools should get rid of their “egregious” snacks, she said.
“If you are going to have snacks, have some standards,” she said.