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School Cafeteria Food Fight

FAST-FOOD NATION

March 26, 2005

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's campy public appearances, Hollywood tan, leather jacket and Humvee are enough to make a grown-up cringe, but kids often respond better to messages packaged in action-hero antics. And because the governor's newest push is that kids should eat better and exercise more, maybe they'll listen.

Legislators do. There are more school-lunch bills kicking around California right now than fad diets. At least five bills address school nutrition, and a sixth defines a physical education class as "one in which each student is required to actively participate." Given the overstuffed gym classes where kids hang out in the back and gossip, this bill isn't as silly an idea as it ought to be.

Though each bill makes a contribution, the different pieces of legislation do step on each others' toes a bit, and it's still hard to fathom the reasoning that would ban sodas but allow fruit juices that have even more sugar and calories but little or no additional nutrition. As the California Dietetic Assn. told The Times last year: "Sugar is sugar is sugar."

Do we really want legislators making changes in children's on-campus eating habits? Well, yes, because nobody else is doing it. Schools can teach children what good nutrition looks like; they won't learn about it with chips, candy and fatty entrees dangled in front of them. The nutritional state of many school lunches barely outranks fast food.

This school year, Texas began an even tougher approach than those of California's bills. Despite cries that it would kill fundraising from junk-food sales, and that students would never eat such nutritious food, it's working. The PTAs and cafeterias are managing, and the kids are eating. Parental outcry, though, forced the state to issue a "cupcake clarification," allowing the treats for birthdays. No state can mess with the cupcake moms.

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