Illinois lawmakers look to ban trans fats from school cafeterias

By Nguyen Huy Vu

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – Twelve-year-old Vanessa Prather loves her french fries.

The sixth-grader orders her favorite deep-fried side dish at least three times a week, when it’s served in the Washington Middle School cafeteria, with no thought to the health problems that can be caused by trans fats.

“No one here cares about that,” Prather said recently, as she and her friends downed fries, sausage pizza, baked chips and orange juice at the Springfield school.

Maybe not, but health advocates and some Illinois lawmakers do.

Illinois could join eight other states in restricting or banning trans fats in schools if lawmakers act on a bill pending in the state Senate. California, Connecticut, Idaho, Indiana, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon and Texas have laws on the books, according to the School Nutrition Association, an advocacy group.

“One of the first places children are exposed to trans fats is in our schools,” said Sen. Donne Trotter, D-Chicago, who introduced the Illinois bill. “We think that is the first environment where children should learn good eating habits and the benefits of it.”

Produced when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil, trans fats increase the shelf life and improve the flavor of foods. But they also can raise a person’s level of so-called “bad cholesterol” and have been linked to obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

Nearly 16 percent of Illinois youngsters ages 10-17 are overweight, the 14th highest percentage in the country, according to Trust for America’s Health, a research group that focuses on disease prevention.

Illinois’ bill would require the State Board of Education to eliminate cafeteria food cooked with vegetable oils containing trans fats by July 2009. A year later, all foods with added trans fats from cafeterias, vending machines and a la carte items would be outlawed. Foods with naturally occurring trans fats – including meat, milk and cheese – would be exempt.

But school administrators say a ban on trans fats is unnecessary because state education officials already have set fat and calorie limits for school menus.

“The bottom line is that nobody cares more about the health and safety of students more than the local elected board, and they’re there to make these decisions,” said Ben Schwarm, associate executive director of the Illinois Association of School Boards.

The Illinois State Board of Education in 2006 introduced voluntary guidelines on what foods can be sold outside of school cafeterias. Schools also are barred from selling candy and soda during the school day to kindergarten through eighth-grade students.

“We have seen an increase in fresh fruits and vegetables being offered in schools and whole-grain products,” said Roxanne Ramage, a board dietitian. “The shift is there and we’re starting to see some great progress.”

School officials also fear they could face higher costs because oils without trans fats – such as olive and canola – are more expensive, said Sarah Watson, spokeswoman for the Springfield School District. She said the district already has moved to baking more foods.

In California, schools began removing foods with trans fats after lawmakers last year passed two laws: one, effective this summer, bans schools from selling meals with artificial trans fats or fried foods as part of the free and reduced-price meal programs; another bans trans fats from a la carte and snack foods beginning July 1, 2009.

The transition hasn’t been easy in the Visalia Unified School district in central California, said Lynnelle Grumbles, the district’s director of nutrition services.

“It is taking time and it is costing more,” said Grumbles, who also is president of the California School Nutrition Association.

She said the state estimated removing trans fats would cost an extra 1 to 2 cents per serving, “and that’s basically what we are seeing.” But skyrocketing prices for fuel and flour are making the transition to healthier meals even more costly.

“When you do the math, it becomes a rather large impact,” Grumbles said.

In Illinois, Trotter said his goal is to encourage good eating habits in school children, especially those from lower-income families whose only meals are free breakfasts and lunches at school.

But he’s also willing to cooperate with school officials to make the change smoother.

“We are trying to get to that reasonable first step now and then move forward,” Trotter said. “There is a cost to eating healthy but there is, as we look at it, a larger cost in eating unhealthy.”