LAUREL – At Murray Hill Middle School in Laurel, nutrition information is posted to a bulletin board for students to peruse as they stand in line for lunch. The board displays nutritional facts for each meal offered, including calories, protein, vitamins and minerals.
Some students glance at the board as they pass by, but many do not, such as 12-year-old Victoria Justus, who said she enjoys the healthy meals her school provides, but does not care to check on the food’s calorie content.
Others, like Samuel Gibson, 12, agree that calories are less useful in making healthy choices.
“I think about the same things my mother makes for me for dinner,” Gibson said.
Still, more Maryland students may get the opportunity to see the numbers behind nutrition, if legislation passes requiring all public schools to post on their menus the calorie content of food items served.
Regulations have already passed in some counties, such as Montgomery, requiring this information. Last year, chain restaurants across the United States faced a similar federal mandate for their menus.
“The time is probably right to do it here” at the state level, said Delegate Doyle Niemann, D-Prince George’s, the bill’s sponsor. “Obesity is a serious problem among our children.”
In Maryland, 28.8 percent of children are overweight or obese according to the Childhood Obesity Action Network’s 2009 State Obesity Profile, giving the state the 15th lowest obesity rate in the nation.
Niemann said that telling students how many calories each food item contains will help them make healthier decisions.
However, Mary Klatko, federal legislative chair of the Maryland School Nutrition Association, said the change would be “overkill,” and the bill should be rewritten to require schools to post the calorie count per meal instead of for each individual item.
In Howard, nutritional content for each entire meal is posted in the school cafeteria, said Klatko, who is also director of food and nutrition services for the county. Information about individual food and drink items is posted online for those who want more specific counts.
“I’ve got information about nutrition all over the dining room,” Klatko said. “Some students stop to look at them, but not a majority of them.”
Klatko said she would rather address the issue by taking nutritionists into the classrooms to explain healthy eating than by posting calories per item.
“You usually need an educational component with it,” said Erin Hager, a pediatrics professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. She gave as an example the approach she used with a research team in the Challenge! project, which used interactive methods to educate students about making healthy choices.
“We try to engage them through their peers and the rest of the school food environment,” she said, referring to nutrition skits and interactive programs.
Until recently, all U.S. schools were required to meet a minimum calorie count per lunch of 645 for elementary and 819 for middle and high schools, a guideline determined in 1966 with the Child Nutrition Act, which aimed to prevent childhood hunger. The Agriculture Department has recently added numerous new requirements, as well as updates.
The new requirement for calories in lunch is 550-650 for elementary, 600-700 for middle and 750-850 for high school students. These numbers represent one-third of the average daily energy requirement for children of these ages.
Under the new guidelines, schools will be required to offer more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, offer only fat-free or low-fat milk, limit calorie counts based on student age and decrease the amounts of trans fat, saturated fat and sodium in foods.
It is because of these new, more specific calorie guidelines that a published count would be unnecessary, Hager said.