Montgomery County Council members and local advocates want healthier foods in school cafeterias, but district officials say they’re already doing what they can.
A recent push for multiple changes to school foods from parent advocacy group Real Food for Kids-Montgomery spurred the conversation Thursday during a joint meeting of the County Council’s education and health and human services committees.
The discussion covered the full gamut of changes the organization is calling for: more scratch-cooked food, healthier a la carte and vending items, the removal of chemical additives, an upper-limit for sugar content, unlimited drinking water, and unlimited fruits and vegetables, among others.
Superintendent Joshua P. Starr and other school officials attended the meeting, along with Real Food for Kids-Montgomery co-founder Karen Devitt.
The organization had gathered about 818 signatures as of Monday on an online petition for the changes.
County Council President Craig Rice said during the meeting that he thinks the school system has worked to provide healthier foods. But he also compared current school menu items to those found in a food court.
Rice said he thinks students will warm up to healthier options if the school system provides them.
“If a chicken breast is all that’s available on that Tuesday, eventually kids are going to start to eat chicken breast, and they’re going to start to be fans of it,” he said.
Marla Caplon, director of food and nutrition services for the school system, said the school system has developed food items containing healthy ingredients that students with picky palates will eat. Some examples are turkey hot dogs and white-meat, whole-grain breaded, baked chicken nuggets.
“What’s important is that we provide food items to students that they will eat,” she said.
County Council Vice President George Leventhal said items like pizza, burgers and hot dogs should not be frequent menu items in school cafeterias — even with healthier ingredients — because of the message it sends to students.
“If the school system, which is the institutional authority with which our kids must interact for all of their childhood, conveys that burgers and fries are a desirable and appropriate menu item, then the message that’s received by our kids is that it’s appropriate and it’s desireable to seek out burgers and fries,” Leventhal said.
Starr pointed to media advertisements for burgers and fries, saying he thinks public schools are “asked to solve societal issues.”
The school system is “pushing” students with different menu items, he said, but offers food familiar to them, as well.
“A healthy burger and healthier fries are better than no food at all,” Starr said. “Kids who are hungry aren’t going to learn effectively.”
The school system also must balance financial needs, he said. The system spends about $560,000 on wheat buns; the same amount could pay for seven teachers, he said.
Devitt said the organization’s members are “asking for a little more creativity” on healthy menu items.
She highlighted two issues of importance to the organization: lowering sugar content and pulling chemical additives.
Current items with high sugar content or additives can be replaced with healthier versions “without huge cost impacts,” she said.
School officials emphasized that the school system meets federal and other food regulations, including those of the Food and Drug Administration and the American Heart Association.
Lindsey Parsons, Real Food for Kids-Montgomery’s other co-founder, said before the meeting that the group plans to collect petition signatures for a couple of months, then present them to Starr and the school board in May.
The group helped host a forum on healthful food in county schools in November.
“We are not asking for anything that has not been done elsewhere without added costs,” Parsons said.