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Food fight could be brewing over MCPS cafeteria options

By Aaron Kraut

Wednesday - 3/12/2014, 3:05pm  ET

The modified MCPS elementary school menu for January, via Real 
Food for Kids-MontgomeryA pair of County Council members on Monday put their support behind a list of recommendations for more healthy food options in MCPS, but the school system is already offering some pushback.

Councilmembers Craig Rice and George Leventhal sent a letter to MCPS Superintendent Joshua Starr saying the Board of Education should enact policies for unlimited fruits, vegetables or salad bars, remove dangerous chemical additives from all menu items and provide more scratch-cooked food — meaning dishes that don’t use processed and pre- packaged ingredients.

The recommendations come from Real Food for Kids – Montgomery, a nonprofit that was key in getting MCPS to ban strawberry milk and that quarreled with MCPS over snow day-influenced menu changes that meant two days of double-stuffed pizza in elementary schools during one week in January.

“We believe these changes would go far in improving student health and would encourage smarter, healthier food choices,” the letter from Rice and Leventhal read. “MCPS is usually on the forefront of student nutrition and we are certain headway on some or all of these fronts is already underway. It is important that the lines of communication stay open when discussing such issues.”

Marla Caplon, director of MCPS Food and Nutrition Services, told The Gazette the idea of offering unlimited fresh fruits and vegetables would be “absolutely impossible,” because of costs. Plus all meals already include a fruit and vegetable option, Caplon added.

That set off this back and forth on Twitter between One Montgomery, a community group seeking to improve county schools, and MCPS public information officer Dana Tofig.

“We are continually assessing what we’re able to offer to students, given the available funds,” Tofig wrote. “We’ve made many improvements.”

The cost issue is almost certain to come up at a joint hearing of the Council’s Health and Human Services and Education Committees on March 20, when MCPS officials are expected to discuss the topic.

Real Food for Kids – Montgomery has also pushed the recommendations on the state level:

In addition, Senator Jamie Raskin and Delegate Jeff Waldstreicher sent a letter to Robin Ziegler, Chief of the Community and School Nutrition Programs Branch at the Maryland State Department of Education, emphasizing that the same priorities be included in the forthcoming Maryland Management and Operations Memorandum that her department is working on. Many thanks to these elected officials who are working on behalf of families in Montgomery County and the entire state.

In the scuffle over double-stuffed pizza, Caplon said MCPS and Real Foods had a fundamental disagreement on the nutritional quality of the popular cafeteria menu item.

Caplon said Real Food’s characterization of double stuffed pizza as “fast food” was wrong. MCPS lists the item as having fewer than 300 calories.