I recently read with interest that Real Food for Kids – Montgomery (RFKM), a parent group in the Montgomery County (MD) Public School system, has persuaded the district to eliminate Baked Doritos and Baked Cheetos from items sold to students a la carte.
The snacks in question are so-called “copycat snacks” – i.e., junk foods tweaked to meet the new Smart Snacks nutritional standards but which otherwise look just like their less-healthy supermarket counterparts. Specifically, in this case, Cheetos and Doritos sold at school (in cafeterias and for fundraising) are baked instead of fried, have a reduced fat content and are considered “whole-grain rich.”
RFKM particularly objected to these snacks because they contain certain artificial food dyes and other additives which the group has deemed problematic. According to a quote in RFKM’s newsletter, the head of the district’s nutrition services department agrees, saying “Cheetos and Doritos were products that we elected to remove for sale because the ingredient label had such a plethora of additives and preservatives. We are continuously seeking to purchase food and beverages with cleaner labels.”
This is a nice victory for RFKM parents, but the group’s experience is also instructive for all parents seeking to make change in their district’s school food program.
According to the RFKM newsletter, the group first requested that the district ditch various food additives back in 2013 – three years ago. It then doggedly kept on top of the issue in an organized fashion, refusing to give up even after various set-backs. Here’s the group’s own account:
RFKM first brought the issue of food additives to the attention of MCPS in 2013. In response to a parent petition and testimonies before the Board of Education in June of 2014, MCPS developed a policy prohibiting from future bids for school food many of the chemicals that RFKM had requested be removed (including MSG, trans fat, Blue 2, Green 3, Red 3, Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Aspartame, Acesulfame-Potassium, Saccharin, Butylated Hydroxyanisol (BHA), Potassium Bromate, Propyl Gallate, Sodium Tripoly Phoshate, and TBHQ). However, right before that policy was put into effect, a 3-year contract for a la carte foods, many of which contain these additives, was signed by MCPS. Last March, RFKM helped pass a resolution through the Montgomery County Council of PTAs asking, among other things, that MCPS not serve foods with artificial food dyes.
In the meantime, at many individual schools, parent representatives of RFKM had stepped forward to ask for healthier a la carte options. As a consequence, some schools, such as Somerset Elementary School . . . had already replaced Cheetos and Doritos with 51% whole grain pita chips, SmartFood Popcorn and Tostitos, all clean label products with whole grains. However, almost all MPCS middle and high schools, and many elementary schools continued to sell these chips until this year. While Doritos and Cheetos may not have disappeared completely (there are reports that they are still available in vending machines), we are thankful to MPCS for making them less accessible to students by removing them from a la carte options. And we look forward to the time when no MCPS foods will contain artificial colors and other harmful ingredients.
The upshot: reforming school food from the grassroots level is not always easy. It often takes considerable persistence, time, effort and some highly dedicated individuals to coordinate the campaign. And, as my recent, dispiriting experience in Houston ISD well illustrated, even after requested reforms are implemented, parents may still need to act as watch dogs to make sure their district doesn’t backslide on its promises.
Kudos to RFKM for its continued progress. You can read more about the group’s history and mission here.
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