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New Arizona school nutrition standards go too far--and will accomplish too little

Thanks to the latest changes in the Arizona Department of Education's Nutrition Standards, parents no longer have to worry about their children's eating habits. From now on, this responsibility will fall squarely on the shoulders of their children's school.

The first step to ensure that these sweeping changes are implemented is a whole new line of defense known as the Pizza Police/Cupcake Commandos. The job description will read something like this:

WANTED: A FEW GOOD PERSONS

Duties include: patrolling elementary classrooms and cafeterias to prevent students, staff and parents from distributing, selling, imbibing or enjoying all manner of foods deemed unhealthy by the Arizona Department of Education. These foods include cookies, candy, cakes and the most evil food of all--pizza.

Will apprehend and arrest parents, caregivers, teachers and cafeteria personnel who bring the contraband into classrooms, playgrounds or the cafeteria. Will conduct sweeps of lockers, desks and backpacks. Will bust fundraising events, school picnics and parties should there be a suspicion that any of the offensive foods are in the vicinity.

Must have no qualms about arresting elementary school children who share sugary treats with their friends. Must have an excellent sense of smell. No experience necessary.

Teachers' job duties will change as well. In addition to teaching reading, writing, math, history, geography, world affairs, drama, physical education, how to pass the federally mandated tests, morals, values, conflict resolution and peer mentoring--as well as maintaining classroom discipline, supervising the playground and cafeteria, counseling students and attending meetings with parents, social workers, psychologists and administrators--educators will now do their share to fight childhood obesity. Without any further funding, teachers will now teach health classes. There will be more physical-education classes (also with no further funding). Weigh-ins and body-fat counts will be conducted regularly.

Other school personnel will also be part of the movement. Kitchen staff will carefully measure the fat and sugar content of all food. Deep fryers will be destroyed. Principals will monitor staff.

While I commend the spirit of this law, I have my doubts on the implementation. Schools are an ideal starting point for building a healthful lifestyle, just as they are when it comes to teaching a love for learning. But these changes are a knee-jerk reaction to pleas from do-gooder interest groups who have probably never spent more than five minutes at a public school.

First, any small school meal, no matter how healthful, can't offset an afternoon in front of the television with a bag of chips and a soda or a fat-laden dinner. Second, it's doubtful that parents who never paid attention to their children's eating habits will suddenly see the light and change their wicked ways.

Arkansas implemented similar food controls two years ago. Schools conduct regular Body Mass Index tests. Letters are sent home to the parents of students who are deemed obese. Arkansas claims there has been an increase in parent involvement, but at this point, there has been no change in the percentage of obese students. They tout the lack of an increase as progress.

Pizza is truly not a bad food. It contains all of the old-fashioned food groups: dairy, grains, vegetables and meat (often mystery meat, admittedly, which could easily be left out). Pizza is also a big money-maker for schools. Pizza sales fund many enrichment activities. Nationwide, pizza companies donate hundreds of pizzas yearly to schools.

I just saw a certificate at a local Mexican joint from a neighboring school, commending the restaurant for rewarding students with perfect attendance. Other local restaurants have similar relationships with schools in their neighborhoods. These efforts go a long way toward building a community, an idea that both federal and state governments have been encouraging for years. It's rather like robbing Peter to pay Paul

A word of advice to schools: Dump the sodas. Develop new portion controls. Fund health classes. Encourage regular exercise. But place the burden of developing healthy lifestyles where it belongs ... at the family table.

More by Rita Connelly

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