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The Good Humor Man as Truant Officer

N.Y. schools to fight absenteeism by offering ice cream

FRIDAY, Sept. 7, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- The head of New York City's public schools has a scheme to lick a nagging truancy problem: ice cream.

Chancellor Harold Levy wants better attendance on Mondays and Fridays, the days with the highest absentee rates, so he's come up with a carrot (or cake)-and-stick formula. The stick is more tests on those days, but his proposed reward is more of their favorite foods, especially ice cream.

Catie Marshall, a spokeswoman for the city's Board of Education, says she hadn't heard about Levy's scoop suggestion until he mentioned it Thursday during an opening-day tour of New York's schools. But is cafeteria food in Gotham bad enough to keep children away? Marshall says no. "The food's pretty terrific," she says, citing Friday's menu at a Brooklyn school that included Jamaican-style beef, chicken and dipping sauce, corn and pears. (But no ice cream.)

Agnes Molnar, a child nutrition expert at the Community Food Resource Center, a New York City nonprofit group that studies poverty and hunger issues, supports Levy's initiative, though she says offering one or two special foods isn't likely to improve attendance.

On the other hand, Molnar says, studies have shown that when kids eat breakfast as a class they perform better in school, have lower absentee rates and do better on tests. While every public school offers a breakfast program, 20 percent to 50 percent of students say they don't eat breakfast at all, she says.

At the other end of the spectrum is a movement to get schoolchildren to eat less sweet stuff and more fruits and vegetables.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate's Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, proposed Thursday that schools offer students free fruits and vegetables. Harkin argues that, when faced with the choice of buying junk food or healthful snacks, children choose the former.

Harkin raised the issue at a produce industry meeting, saying he would push to include a pilot program for the subsidized snacks as part of the pending farm bill.

Seth Boffeli, an agriculture committee spokesman, says the senator's proposal is far from concrete. "It's still kind of an idea that's just floating around," he says. "Nothing's been drafted."

The government's school lunch program provides free or low-cost lunches to 27 million children a day, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the system. Experts say tray meals in school cafeterias generally are well balanced, but kids who load up on à la carte selections -- which often consist of high-fat foods -- can get poor nourishment.

Keith Ayoob, a pediatrics professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City and a spokesman for the American Dietetic Association, calls the subsidized produce plan "a great start" to improving child nutrition. "Whatever's going to help kids to get more fruits and vegetables into their diet is a good thing," he says.

But Ayoob says simply making more produce available at lunchtime is only part of a more complete approach that involves improved nutrition education.

"It's amazing how little kids know about nutrition when it comes to fruits and vegetables," he says. "Many of them don't even know you can eat [produce] raw."

Although diet experts recommend people get at least five servings a day of fruits and vegetables, most children barely eke out two or three, Ayoob says. And most of that comes in the form of potatoes, particularly french fries that are soaked in fat.

The agriculture industry reacted favorably to Harkin's suggestion.

"We're obviously thrilled," says Duke Hipp, a spokesman for the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association. "We think it's a win-win for consumers and schoolchildren." The Virginia-based group represents 1,100 growers, shippers and other produce industry companies.

Yet Molnar, of the Community Food Resource Center, says she's skeptical that such a plan would really deter kids from eating junk food in favor of healthier snacks.

"I wish that were so, [but] the evidence points totally against that," she says. In New York, for example, where roughly 80 percent of students get free lunches, junk food consumption is extremely high, she says.

"It's the stigma, it's not the food and the price," Molnar says.

What To Do

To find out more about what your kids are eating at school, visit the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the nation's school lunch program.

And for tips on packing a healthy lunch your kids will enjoy, check out KidsHealth.

SOURCES: Interviews with Keith Ayoob, Ed.D., R.D., assistant professor of pediatrics, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York City; Agnes Molnar, director of child nutrition programs, Community Food Resource Center, New York City; Catie Marshall, spokeswoman, Board of Education, New York City; Seth Boffeli, spokesman, Senate Agriculture Committee, Washington, D.C.; and Duke Hipp, spokesman, United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, Alexandria, Va.
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