A school food crackdown looming in Congress that aims to reduce childhood obesity went over like a wet potato chip at a suburban Denver elementary school where federal agriculture officials pitched the plan Tuesday.
"I like healthy food. But I also like snacks," said Dominic Sotheo, 7, who picked at a bean-and-cheese burrito with corn and low-fat milk served for the visit. Sotheo favors PayDay candy bars and chocolate chip cookies — treats his school doesn't sell.
Under a bill pending in the Senate, more schools could be taking treats away from pupils, or at least making them healthier under tighter national nutrition standards.
The bill would add $4.5 billion over the next decade for school meals for poor students. The measure also gives schools grants to help them buy local produce.
However, it is the bill's nutritional guidelines that most concern the diners at Coronado Hills Elementary School in Thornton.
Under the change, the Agriculture Department could create new standards for all foods in schools, including vending machine items. For example, federal authorities could deem that school pizzas be made with whole-wheat crusts, or ban sugary snacks and sodas. The bill would ban canned fruit in heavy syrup and tuna packed in oil. Also off-limits — sweetened apple sauce.
"They don't want your teeth to rot," explained Hayden Boller, 7, who munched on a ham sandwich and string cheese from home. Boller confessed that he frequently splurges on a 75-cent snack sold at his school cafeteria, usually baked Doritos or Cheetos. But the boy was sanguine about the possibility those treats may not be for sale one day.
"I like getting my fruits and vegetables, too," Boller said.
Federal officials who oversee school nutrition are taking their healthy-lunch pitch straight to their toughest critics — school diners.
Kevin Concannon, the USDA's undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, has had lunch at about a half-dozen school cafeterias this spring and plans to visit more before the school year ends.
"Getting kids started eating healthier is one of the most important long-term goals we have as a country," Concannon told reporters after lunch. Asked about the snacks and ice creams sold alongside the fruits and veggies at the Colorado school, Concannon said snacks wouldn't immediately be banned — but schools could be required to offer healthier things.
"We're not going to ban vending machines. But we're going to make sure the foods that are in the vending machines have some nutritional value," he said.
‘Too much garbage’
Concannon said he hopes the bill clears Congress and is signed into law this summer, in time for the standards to take effect next school year. The Senate version would spend $4.5 billion. Concannon said the department is pushing for $10 billion over the next decade to improve school nutrition.
He was careful to point out that the new nutritional standards wouldn't ban school favorites such as pizza or hamburgers. But more nutritional oversight is coming, Concannon said.
"I think you're going to see more regulation in that regard. But it's going to be done in a thoughtful way," Concannon said.
School lunch workers here favored of the plan. At Coronado Hills, assistant cafeteria manager Susan Morris said already the school has cleared a lot of junk food from kids' plates. But Morris pointed to a display of baked chips and ice creams by the register and said she would like tighter federal controls — even if schools lose revenue from snack sales.
"I'd prefer to see it all go. It's just too much garbage for these kids," Morris said.
Yocelyn Portillo, a second-grader who picked up a bag of baked Cheetos, disagreed.
"I'd be sad if I couldn't have a snack," said Portillo, 7. "Most days I don't get one, I'm good. But sometimes, you know, you just really, really need a snack.