The Sag Harbor School District last week, citing the need for further research, postponed a decision on whether to loosen its nutrition policy to allow foods containing sweeteners, such as high fructose corn syrup, to be sold in the schools.
Proponents say the policy change was intended to ensure that students without lunch money could still be served peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches without being turned away hungry. The jelly contains high fructose corn syrup, a highly processed syrup that has become a difficult-to-avoid staple of the American diet over the past few decades and has been blamed for a host of health ailments, including obesity.
But a majority of School Board members voiced concerns at a meeting last Wednesday night, April 18, that bringing back the sweetener would run counter to the district’s goal of teaching healthful eating. They suggested a mechanism could be put in place to better ensure that students who need them have access to free and reduced-price lunches.
A vocal group of parents objected to the change and has launched an online petition that has gathered 170 signatures to date.
“National research shows clear links between good nutrition and better student performance in classrooms,” the petition states. “The district has the responsibility to develop healthy minds and must also maintain and develop standards to promote healthy bodies.” It claims that allowing the non-nutritive sweeteners to be served in the schools will jeopardize students’ health and wellness.
The district’s current wellness and nutrition policy, which was revised just last November, states that foods or beverages containing non-nutritive sweeteners such as sucralose, saccharin, aspartame or high fructose corn syrup, as well as hydrogenated and trans fats, may not be sold in school meals. A proposed change to the policy would allow the sweeteners to be sold “at a minimum,” and those containing high fructose corn syrup or hydrogenated and trans fats to be sold only if another product cannot be substituted for it. The same rules would apply to vending machine snacks.
School Board member Sandra Kruel, a proponent of the change, said the proposed policy change arose from district wellness committee discussions. The school chef, she said, has about seven children per day who show up without lunch money and whose parents are embarrassed because of it.
“The chef now says, ‘I’m sorry, we can’t serve jelly because it has high fructose [corn] syrup,’” Ms. Kruel told the board. “I don’t want to serve Snickers bars to every child who walks in. I don’t want to serve high fructose syrup in every single meal. But I don’t want the chef to sit there and have his hands tied because they can’t give the child a sandwich if they don’t have the money.”
Ms. Kruel added that certain “diet” beverages should also be available to some students, including those who have diabetes, for example.
Several parents in attendance questioned why turkey sandwiches couldn’t be the standby, instead of peanut butter and jelly, or whether a different vendor that sells jelly without high fructose corn syrup could be used. They also suggested coconut water as an alternative to so-called “diet” drinks that contain high fructose corn syrup.
Susan Lamontagne, a district parent who opposes the change, presented statistics on rising rates of obesity and other health ills linked to sweets and noted that good food is needed for good brain function. To emphasize her point, she dumped several packages of candies—M&M’s, KitKats, Twix and Snickers—on the table in front of the School Board.
“We’re worried about our kids’ standing, I know we all are. We want them to make it to college and be number one, and we all want the Whalers to win,” she said, referring to the district’s sports teams. “Well, I’ll tell you where our kids are going to be first. Our kids are actually, according to the [Centers for the Disease Control and Prevention], going to be the first generation that’s not going to live as long as their parents. So, if we want them to win at something, well, we’re doing a really great job of doing that right here.”
Other parents also spoke out strongly against changing the policy.
“I believe it’s the school district’s job to not only teach healthy, responsible choices, but to provide them and to set the best possible example,” said another mother, Allison Scanlon, who has three children in the elementary school. “I just don’t see any room for weakening the policy,” she said. “We don’t ever lower the bar in the environment of education. We need to keep the highest standard and practice it.”