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Jill Gebeke made it a habit to reward herself with a small piece of chocolate after lunch every day. It's hard work being a school principal, after all. But the chocolate rewards ended last month when some first- and second-graders caught her. "I thought you said this was a sweet-free zone," they reminded her.
Gebeke, principal at Chelsea Heights Elementary, is not alone in trying to change an old habit. Much to the chagrin of thousands of students -- and even some parents and school administrators -- all public schools in the St. Paul district will be declared "sweet-free zones" by the end of this school year.
Debra LaBounty, president of the Minnesota School Nutrition Association, said she believes St. Paul is the only district in the state to institute such a dramatic measure. National nutrition leaders say fewer than a handful of school districts in the country have tried such a thing.
With a nod to their role in reducing the nation's high obesity rate, Minnesota's second-largest school district plans to fully enforce the ban on sweets.
Reminders have been sent to teachers, students and parents that "sweet, sticky, fat-laden [and] salty treats" aren't allowed during the school day, said Jean Ronnei, the district's director of nutrition services.
The move was made this year, four years after the idea was conceived in a new St. Paul schools wellness policy, passed at the recommendation of a panel of parents, teachers, school nurses and administrators.
Superintendent Valeria Silva, who was hired a year ago, decided to take action after a study determined 40 percent of St. Paul's fourth-graders, most of whom are poor and minority, are obese. That's 11 percent higher than the national rate.
In prior years, though the policy existed, it was rarely enforced because of other academic and leadership changes the schools were going through, said Ann Hoxie, the district's assistant director for student health and wellness.
"It's very basic. Healthier kids are better learners," Hoxie said.
"We have these kids for 6 1/2 hours a day," Gebeke said. "We want to put this message front and center."
St. Paul administrators say they're preparing for stricter rules that could soon be handed down through the $4.5 billion Child Nutrition Bill signed by President Obama last week.
The bill will disburse that federal money to school districts to provide healthier lunches to more students. In the next year, the federal government will write new rules that can determine what kinds of foods are allowed to be sold on school grounds, including in vending machines and at fundraisers.
The transition in St. Paul will be neither easy nor popular.
Opponents say there is little proof such policies work and say it's a school's role to teach -- not force -- students to eat healthy.
"Nobody has the money or the will to do the real work it's going to take to get American kids to lose weight," said Jim Tillotson, a professor of nutrition policy at Tufts University.
"I think it's counter-productive," said Joan Archer, president of the Minnesota's Beverage Association, which negotiated with the district when schools eliminated soda from vending machines. "Kids aren't much different than adults. When they're mandated to do something, it can backfire."
Tillotson said "silver-bullet" policies often oversimplify the root causes -- which range from economic to cultural -- of the nation's extraordinarily high obesity rate.
While students won't be able to eat sweets at school, they'll go home to fast food-infested neighborhoods, he said. "I want our government to think broader."
The students are much more blunt.
"All my friends say, 'This really sucks,'" said Misky Salad, a 10-year-old fifth-grader at Chelsea Heights Elementary. "A lot of us feel it should be up to us to determine what we should do with our bodies."
It'll ultimately be a blow to booster clubs and parent organizations, too, which won't be able to sell hot chocolate, doughnuts, candy bars and cookies at school events, often used as fundraisers.
Teachers also will have to find new ways to reward students, and children will have to come up with new ways to celebrate classroom birthdays and, well, almost every occasion.
Punishment for breaking the policy, at this point, doesn't exceed a verbal warning.
St. Paul's campaign is financially supported through a series of state and federal grants, the largest of which will end this school year.
In addition to the sweets ban, the cafeteria stopped serving second helpings and selling sweet deserts this year. Middle and high schools swapped their snacks for homemade loaves of bread and other healthy alternatives.
Teachers and community members have come up with a list of new ways to reward students, such as allowing a child to stand first in line.
Administrators are already looking to expand the policy this summer to include after-school sporting events.
"What we model in school is also teaching," Hoxie said. "We're trying to set up the best environment for kids."
Daarel Burnette II• 651-735-1695