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Juice, milk to replace sodas
State school board adopts vending machine guidelines to improve student health, hears budget progress reports

By M.J. Ellington
mjellington@decaturdaily.com · (334) 262-1104

MONTGOMERY — When Alabama public school students return to class, new state guidelines will call for school vending machines to include more juice, low- or no-fat milk, water, and low-calorie or light drinks in place of sugary soft drinks.

State school board members Mary Jane Caylor, D-Huntsville, and Ella Bell, D-Montgomery, said they are converts.

Caylor called the emphasis on healthier food and drinks for schoolchildren an "evolution that changed the mindset" of children and school personnel, who had been skeptical about a switch from soft drinks and foods like french fries.

But when given the choice, Caylor said, her 12-year-old granddaughter, who once picked sugary soft drinks, burgers and fries as a quick meal, instead selected low-fat chocolate milk and a lean sandwich. Caylor said reinforcing good eating habits at school helped steer those choices.

Bell's experience was even closer to home. "I was one who resisted vehemently," Bell said. "I could not go through the day without at least three Cokes." Now diagnosed with diabetes, Bell said she made changes out of necessity, something that more children growing up now will face in the future without dietary modifications, say national nutritional experts.

"In the beginning, this is a generational thing," Superintendent of Education Joe Morton said. "Remember the work session when Mrs. Bell berated me for proposing the changes?"

"I did," said a smiling Bell.

"And here we are two years late and she is a convert," Morton said.

The new guidelines are recommendations of the a coalition that included educators, nutrition experts, the Alabama Beverage Association, the American Heart Association and state Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks, who in 2005 helped state educators formulate the first phase of a plan to reduce obesity in state school children.

The guidelines call for schools to remove any remaining sugary drinks and whole milk from vending areas accessible to students during regular school hours. Guidelines do not apply to sporting events, school plays and events like band concerts, where parents and adults make up a large percentage of the audience or where boosters and other groups sell beverages as fundraisers.

Morton said children in state schools have been surprisingly accepting of the guidelines that already removed many soft drinks from school vending machines and reduced fried and many high-calorie foods from school lunches.

Pleased with increases in education funding during the past three years, Morton compared appropriations now with those in place when the board appointed him superintendent in 2004.

Due to increases in Education Trust Fund revenue, Morton said, the state education operating budget increased from $535 million in 2004 to the current $818 million.

Other changes include increases in textbook allowances per pupil from $5.29 to $50.50, transportation from $176 million to $299 million, pre-school special education from zero to $3.57 million, advanced placement programs from zero to $2.6 million, English as a second language from zero to $5.39 million and gifted education from zero to $2.34 million.

Morton said the budget approved by the state Legislature in the session that just ended included the first statewide appropriation ever in Alabama for gifted education. The budget also included an increase in substitute-teacher pay from $35 per day to $60 per day, an amount that Morton said should help school systems recruit more good substitutes.

In other action, the board approved changes to state special-education guidelines that put the state in line with federal recommendations, which changed the standard deviation score for children to receive "specially-designed instruction."

Some parents were concerned that changing the score would mean their children no longer qualified for special instruction.

Special Education Director Mabrey Whetstone said he doesn't expect the new regulations to exclude children the state now serves.

Local vending

A survey of school systems in The Decatur Daily’s coverage area found that vending machines fall under oversight of the individual school principals, who use them as fundraisers for their schools.

Some school systems like Lawrence County and Decatur use a Child Nutrition Program employee to make sure vending machines are following state guidelines. Schools turn off vending machines during breakfast and lunch periods.

- Bayne Hughes

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