FAMILY-Picking battles: Healthy breakfasts challenge schools

Pop Tarts, Froot Loops, Frosted Flakes – they're foods most kids love, but should they be served in schools?

That's the question being asked in the Charlottesville City Schools, where as many as half the students are eligible for the federal free or reduced breakfast program, and school administrators are trying to increase breakfast participation by offering such fare. But is appealing to a child's sweet tooth the best thing to do? 

Some parents say no.

The fact that most of the students eating breakfast in school have free or reduced meal status is "all the more reason to provide the healthiest alternatives you can," says city councilor Holly Edwards, whose 12-year-old twin daughters attend Buford. While Edwards' daughters like Pop Tarts, she says she wouldn't serve them regularly, and especially not for a meal she considers the most important of the day.  

Indeed, research suggests breakfast is critical to school performance.

A recent study conducted by Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital found that children who ate breakfast in school had fewer absences, higher math grades, and fewer incidences of problems like depression, anxiety, and hyperactivity. The study did not, however, look at different results based on the quality of the breakfast served.

Barbara Jager, a registered dietician with the Thomas Jefferson Health District and a member of the local Childhood Obesity Task Force, says the Charlottesville school system is working hard to encourage healthier eating habits among its students and healthier cooking habits among its cafeteria staff. The changes are gradual, she says, but significant: low-fat milk instead of whole, no more use of deep fryers, and a full time nutritionist, Alicia Cost, on hand to help cafeteria staff plan menus that meet USDA guidelines, including lower fat and sugar content.

So how about those Pop Tarts and sugary cereals?

"It seemed to be something students want," says Cost, "and we'd rather have them eat breakfast than not."  

Cost points out that Pop Tarts are now made with whole grains and have recently been reformulated to reduce the sugar content to within USDA guidelines, which require that 35 percent or less of the total weight come from sugar.  

That wasn't enough to convince Albemarle County Schools to serve them. After Kellogg's approached her with the new Pop Tart formulation, county Food Services coordinator Christina Pitsenberger says, she still "did not feel good" about the pastries, and she refuses to serve them to students. One "low sugar" pastry contains 15 grams of sugar– five times the amount of sugar in a serving of Kix cereal, one of the breakfast choices offered in county schools.

What about a low-sugar, preservative-free pastry offered at stores like Whole Foods? Federal reimbursement for school breakfast hasn't increased since the early 1980s, according to Jager, who hopes this year the state government will chip in to help public schools improve their menu offerings. 

In the meantime, schools are forced to find affordable selections they hope children will eat. 

"We have to pick our battles," Jager says.