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Goodbye Candy, Hello Soy Bars

Way before the soda ban, some L.A. schools had started to banish high-fat snacks

September 02, 2002|GAYLE POLLARD-TERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There should be a sign on the front of Edison Middle School. A big red circle, filled with stacks of candy bars and bags of chips, slashed with a big red line, the universal sign for "Don't Even Think About It."

Well in advance of last week's decision to ban soda sales on campuses of the Los Angeles Unified School District, starting in 2004, plans were laid at Edison to ban not only sodas, but the junkiest of junk foods from campus.

Potato chips, 15 fat grams per serving, were pulled from the student-run store. Candy bars, with as many calories as a Lean Cuisine dinner and triple the fat, banished. Big bottles of soda, 20 ounces of empty calories, vanished.

Empty soda machines stand silent in the playground of this South-Central campus, the first but not the last among L.A. public schools to expel sodas and a good share of junk food. Students returning to Venice High School on Tuesday will find neither sodas nor high-fat snacks in the vending machines. Monroe High School in the San Fernando Valley is moving in the same direction.

"They took away our candy, our chips, our favorites," Blanca Machuca, 12, says as she nibbles on a chocolate chip cookie, allowed at Edison because the snack has half the fat calories of her favorite chocolate candy.

"They" are the principal, Faye Banton, teachers and parents. They exorcised the high-fat goodies in January in the hope that students will turn to more nutritious varieties and vitamin-rich fruit drinks, nonfat milk or water.

When the LAUSD board voted last week to give middle and high schools two years to quit selling carbonated soft drinks to students during school hours, the motion didn't include kicking out junk food.

At Edison, science and health teacher Lilra Brown needs no instruction from downtown. "Thirty percent of our children are overweight," Brown says. She also worries about the connection between bad grades, low test scores and poor nutrition.

She coordinates a grant from the Linking Education Activity and Food, or LEAF, state program, designed to help fund nutrition and fitness education for kids. In the L.A. district, Venice and Monroe were also awarded LEAF grants. Combined, the three grants total $750,000.

LEAF coordinators at all three schools want students to eat healthier. They know students won't give up snacking at school, so they are focusing on making healthier choices available.

When the bell rings at Edison signaling the morning nutrition break, many of the 1,600 students sprint to the school store on the edge of the playground. Pulling dollars out of pockets, they line up for T.G.I. Friday's potato-skin snack chips with cheddar and bacon. No respectable health food store would offer them, but they're on the shelves because they contain less fat, less sugar, less salt and fewer calories, though not by much, than the popular Flamin' Hot Cheetos they replaced.

The students also favor the intensely hot Poore Brothers habanero potato chips, which got the nod because they are low in saturated fat. Grandma's cookies, in oatmeal and raisin, peanut butter, and chocolate chip are all for sale--again, not classic health food, but with some redeeming ingredients. Instead of candy bars, students can choose Rice Krispies Treats or Chewy granola bars or trail mix--though few do.

"I'm not used to this stuff," says Christopher Thompkins, 13. The eighth-grader was unhappy when the junk food disappeared, especially Doritos. He eats the healthier chips because, "There's no other choice. I've got to get used to it."

Amber Patterson, 12, dives into the baked chips, citing a goal popular with many girls: "I'm trying to lose some weight."

Since the change, sales have dropped from $1,000 a day to about $500, according to Aura Barrera, the school's financial manager, reducing the profits that pay for band instruments, dance costumes and other student activities. That money will have to be made up somehow, but the middle school won't take the hit that some L.A. high schools will--some take in as much as $80,000 per year from the sale of sodas and junk food to pay for pep rallies, dances and other events.

At Edison, school administrators say there is a healthy consequence from the change. More students eat the lunch offered by the school. The meal count has risen from 555 a day to about 800, according to cafeteria manager Addie Sandville, suggesting that some children deprived of their favorite snacks will choose to eat whatever is available. In a couple of weeks, sales representatives for vendors will be on the Edison campus to offer a menu of healthy snacks. Students will pick the tastiest ones for sale in the school store.

At Venice High School, sodas should be missing from the 22 vending machines by the time students arrive for class Tuesday. This purge has been a long time coming.

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