Thursday July 14, 2011

BOSTON -- Sugary sodas and sweet snacks are out along with potato chips and other vending machine cuisine under Massachusetts' new school nutrition standards approved Wednesday.

The rules, approved unanimously by the state Public Health Council, ban foods with artificial sweeteners, trans fats, and caffeine from schools' a la carte lines, vending machines, stores, events and fundraisers. They also ban fried foods and limit the amount of fat, sodium, and sugar that can be in school foods.

In addition, the regulations require schools to offer unsweetened fruits and vegetables wherever food is sold besides in vending machines, and provide water for free at all times. Breads must be made with whole grain, juices must be 100 percent fruit juice, and flavored milk cannot have more sugar than plain low-fat milk.

"This puts Massachusetts in the lead in promoting children's health and well-being," said Valerie Bassett, director of the Massachusetts Public Health Association, which pushed for stronger regulations.

Bassett said helping children develop a taste for healthy foods will give them good eating habits as they grow older.

"It's not all about taking away," she said. "There will be a healthier, more beautiful array of food to cultivate their tastes."

Massachusetts is one of 29 states to establish guidelines on foods sold separately from standard school lunches.


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Officials say the Massachusetts regulations are among the toughest in the country.

"Many states have focused on different aspects," Dr. Lauren Smith, medical director of the state's Public Health Department, said. "We are focusing on as many aspects as possible. We really are trying to be comprehensive."

Still, some criticize the new rules, saying that while healthy eating is important, the state should not impose more restrictions on already overwhelmed school administrators.

"This is just another level of regulation that principals must enforce and to which districts must comply when the regulators come in to look over everyone's shoulder," said Glenn Koocher, president of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. The group said each district should develop its own nutrition policies.

"We are all concerned that kids get the most nutritious meals," Koocher said. "We are concerned about the best strategy for doing that."

Parents watching their children play in the Boston Common park differed on what should be banned. Some said parents should take greater responsibility for their children, but they also agreed they wanted their children to eat well-balanced meals and learn the importance of a healthy diet in school and at home.

"If you start it when they are little they will want it," said Dirce Abreu, a South Boston resident, as she watched her two sons, who are not allowed to drink soda or have many sweet snacks, play. Abreu said she wants her son to be served healthy foods when he starts first grade in the fall.

"Some of the food now is all right, but hamburgers? Pizza?" she said.

The state guidelines do not apply to lunch meals, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture is crafting guidelines to improve the nutrition standards of school lunches nationwide.

The regulations come a week after a new study found the state's adult obesity rate rose from 11.6 to 22.3 percent in 15 years. Still, Massachusetts is the fourth thinnest state in the country.