By ROB TRICCHINELLI, Capital News Service
WASHINGTON - Pizza. Hot dogs. Chicken nuggets.
The average school lunch menu in Maryland reads like a list of carnival fare, and that has parents worried, despite recent measures in Montgomery County to improve food quality and overall health value.
"Across the board, you still see a preponderance of fast food-like items," said Tracy A. Fox, a dietitian and parent from Bethesda.
Even though healthier options are more available, the selection on main menus and the presence of vending machines and other "a la carte" programs pose a significant health risk to kids, she said.
Contracts for vending machines and other food options can provide schools with additional income, and the brand-name familiarity can lure students away from the traditional lunch, said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
With those other lunch options, parents cannot always be sure what their children are eating once they get to school.
"Mothers don't know," said Carrie Witkop, a mother of three from Chevy Chase. "It's difficult to monitor."
When Witkop went to Rosemary Hills Primary School during lunch two years ago with her 8-year-old son, Tommy, she wasn't pleased with what she saw.
"There was a little piece of processed chicken on this awful bread," she said. "And the applesauce tasted like corn syrup."
Witkop was also astounded by the number of students throwing out large portions of their lunch: "There was so much waste. ... I could see there's a problem."
Since then, Witkop has been sending her children to school with a homemade lunch.
Montgomery County tweaked its menu for this school year to include more fresh fruit, whole-grain foods and vegetarian choices.
Even with an emphasis on healthier options, many schools regularly feature foods high in fat, calories and sodium. By doing so, schools "are still confirming that these foods are OK to have," said Fox, who is president of Food, Nutrition & Policy Consultants in Bethesda.
"Districts will say their food is prepared in a healthy way, but if you look at the menu, it looks like a fast-food menu," she said. "I don't care if the pizza or the hot dogs are made in a healthy way. They shouldn't be on the menu. (Students) should be exposed to a wider variety."
Childhood obesity is on the rise in Maryland, according to several recent studies, and experts say school lunches play a major factor.
"Our children are growing up in a junk food-saturated culture," said Wootan. "Obesity is one of the most visible problems" facing society today.
Witkop agrees, saying, "We want to see a lot more fresher food. We don't want students eating junk food."
Some experts say vending machine contracts and the like aren't always the best deal for schools, either.
The money schools make from those contracts, on average, is $18 per student per year, according to Wootan. The contracts wind up "shifting students' money around," she said, since money is coming from students either way.
In Montgomery County, Fox was part of a committee that in 2004 changed the school system's policy on vending machines and other health standards.
"Nutritional standards are up and soda machines are turned off during the day," she said.
Montgomery County's policies were adopted as statewide guidelines for the following year.
Even those policies, though, "are getting out of date," she added. "We want to see them revised and updated."
Legislation in Congress would also improve the state of school lunches nationwide, if passed.
The Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act, proposed by U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, would put vending machine contracts under the same nutritional standards facing school lunch programs.
The current standards are left over from the "disco era," Wootan said.
Passing that act would go a long way toward improving school lunch programs in Maryland, Fox said, adding that Maryland is on an "upward trend, but there's clearly more work to be done."