Decision to limit school cereal options has drawn mixed reviews

  • Article by: COREY MITCHELL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 4, 2011 - 8:45 AM

Banning heavily sweetened cereals from the breakfast menu is the first step in Minneapolis' effort to wean students off two staples of the modern American diet: sugar and sodium.

Cocoa Puffs and Cookie Crisp are now cafeteria contraband in the Minneapolis School District.

Froot Loops and Frosted Flakes? Forbidden.

Banning heavily sweetened cereals from the breakfast menu is the first step in Minneapolis' effort to wean students off two staples of the modern American diet: sugar and sodium.

Minneapolis swapped out some of the more sugary cereals for good in March during "National School Breakfast Week."

Students now have their choice of seven General Mills and Kellogg's brands: Frosted Mini-Wheats, Honey Kix, Kashi Heart to Heart, MultiGrain Cheerios, Rice Chex, Rice Krispies and Wheaties.

The new options aren't as pleasing to the students' palates. In less than two months, nutrition services director Rosemary Dederichs has already noticed a decline in cereal consumption at breakfast.

"We knew it wasn't going to be the world's most popular change," Dederichs said.

The changes are in response to new federal dietary guidelines for school meals, which Dederichs helped establish in 2009. She was one of three school food directors to serve on the Nutrition Standards for the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs commissioned by the national Institute of Medicine.

The Minneapolis schools were fortunate enough to have two representatives on the panel, though the other was unofficial.

University of Minnesota professor and nutritionist Lisa Harnack, who has two children in the district, also served. She also directs the college's Nutrition Coordinating Center.

During her school days in the 1970s and '80s, Harnack had her share of corn dog and Tater Tots lunches laden in heavy meats, starches and saturated fat.

What Harnack filled her stomach with back then wouldn't be allowed in the Minneapolis schools today.

She praised Dederich for improving the menu, including her push to get more whole grains on lunch trays, even though it isn't required by the Department of Agriculture.

"They're ahead of the game," Harnack said.

Minneapolis already meets 90 percent of the guidelines established under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, according to Dederichs.

The goals of lowering sodium and adding more legumes, such as alfalfa, beans and peas, are still a work in progress.

To cut back on sodium, the district ditched hot dogs, corn dogs, breaded chicken patties and its deep fryers in recent years. Ditto for desserts.

Most district schools also restrict or prohibit birthday snacks and holiday-themed treats. With 30 children in a class handing out birthday cupcakes, Halloween candy and Valentine's Day vittles, the calories can pile up over the course of a school year, Harnack said.

More districts across the nation have taken notice in hopes of removing the phrase "childhood obesity" from their vocabularies.

Obesity among school-aged children has more than tripled in the past three decades. Those obese youth are more likely candidates for a host of problems ranging from cardiovascular disease to sleep apnea and social problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Division of Adolescent and School Health.

Some kids eat only at school

Poor, unbalanced diets are a major factor, especially for students whose only meals of the day come at school.

In Minneapolis, those kids could number in the thousands. Two-thirds of the district's 33,000 students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

Data shows that tens of thousands of students eat in-school meals daily: Minneapolis serves breakfast to 12,000, lunch to 21,000 and snacks to 4,000 in after-school enrichment programs each day.

Loading them up with enough sugar and sodium to induce shock, instead of opting for whole grains, fruits and vegetables, is wrong, even if children don't see it that way, Dederich said.

"They're children," Dederichs said. "They're not going to go with what's healthy."

Harnack has advice for those parents with upset, cranky children crashing down from their sugar highs: Support the schools.

"Explain to your kids why the changes are happening," Harnack said. "Help our children grow up to be healthier."

Corey Mitchell • 612-673-4491

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