OLYMPIA -- Sitting in the cafeteria of Lincoln Elementary, 5-year-old Claire White blew bubbles in her glass of milk with a straw and showed off her loose tooth.
Piled on top of the youngster's blue plastic lunch tray was an assortment of organic foods and alternative protein sources.
"I love hummus," said Claire, who had gotten much of her lunch from the school's organic salad bar.
The kindergartner said organic foods are good for you and taste good too.
Thanks to action in Olympia this legislative session, children across the state may soon get to judge for themselves whether they like healthy food.
State lawmakers this year approved a measure directing the Washington State School Directors' Association and others to develop a model policy for nutritional foods and exercise programs in public schools.
"I never thought I would see a change in school lunches in my watch," said Cheryl Petra, principal of Lincoln Elementary in Olympia. "I thought school lunches were stamped out in stone. It's amazing."
Because of research highlighting weight and disease statistics in school-age children, proponents of the measure want a model state policy to address access to foods high in sugar, fat and salt by Jan. 1, 2005.
Guidelines should also address physical education programs. School districts could then debate and adopt the model or their own policies by Aug. 1, 2005.
The measure passed the Senate 47-1 and then the House 79-16.
The lone voice of dissent in the Senate belonged to Sen. Erik Poulsen, D-Seattle.
"I have a lot of confidence that if our School Board wants to put healthier food into vending machines, they don't need a state law telling them to do that," said Poulsen. "We pass a lot of prescriptive laws in Olympia that aren't really necessary."
He added jokingly, "If you can't eat junk food when you're a kid, when can you eat it?"
Lincoln Elementary is part of an alternative program focusing on the environment. It is no wonder then that Lincoln's farm-to-school organic salad bar was a model program for nutritional foods in schools.
In two years, 10 elementaries, two middle schools and a high school in the Olympia School District have followed Lincoln's lead by putting organic foods on students' lunch plates.
"The big picture is that we really help kids learn to make choices for their long-term health," Petra said.
According to federal guidelines developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National School Lunch Program, school lunches should provide one-third of the recommended dietary allowances of protein, calories and certain vitamins and minerals.
To receive federal subsidies and donated foods from the USDA, public schools must also turn off vending machines selling "competitive foods" during lunch.
"We know that children's weight has been increasing as well as adults'," said Kyle Unland, coordinator for nutrition and physical activity for the Washington State Department of Health.
"And, we know that our diets are not what they used to be as far as the amount of food that is offered per serving size and the types of foods that are available."
According to the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, a division within the CDC, undernutrition can impair school performance.
Also, having high blood pressure, high cholesterol and too much weight are common among U.S. youths and may contribute to heart disease as they grow older. The CDC associates poor diet with diabetes, osteoporosis, dental decay and cancer.
In Washington, about 26 percent of eighth-graders, 22 percent of 10th-graders, and 21 percent of 12th-graders surveyed were overweight or at risk of being overweight, according to the Department of Health's 2002 Healthy Youth Survey.
More than half of eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders surveyed ate less than three fruits and vegetables a day.
The typical vending machine offers a hodgepodge of cookies, candy and chips. In Seattle Public Schools, only secondary schools can have vending machines, and their contents must be monitored for nutritional value once a month.
"We do not have anything in the bill that would require districts to do away with their vending machines," said Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, primary sponsor of Senate Bill 5436. "Vending machines can offer more healthful food options."
While the Seattle public-school policy won't allow items in the vending machine if two of their top three ingredients are simple sugars, artificial colorings or artificial flavorings, it does allow an assortment of chocolates, fruit pies, cookies, potato chips and ice creams.
"There's nothing wrong with vending machines; it's the things sold in vending machines that could be a problem," Unland said.
In Seattle, Hawaiian Punch, Hi-C drinks and lemonade can be sold throughout the day. But carbonated soft drinks can be sold only after lunch.
Despite the potential for further guidelines limiting soft-drink sales, the Washington State Soft Drink Association supported the bill.
"Obviously, childhood obesity is a huge issue in the country, and this takes a balanced approach," said David Michener, executive director of the association.
Washington isn't the only state in the union to enact nutritional policies for public schools. Areas in California and New York have implemented similar measures limiting soft-drink sales and adding nutritional food policies.
"Who wants schools to be models of bad health behavior?" said Don Sloma, president of the Washington State Public Health Association and former executive director of the State Board of Health.
Lincoln Elementary is now trying to create organic hot meals in addition to the salad bar. Lunch participation rates increased 16 percent since adding organic choices.
After eating several organic tomatoes in the Lincoln cafeteria, 8-year-old Torsten Olegre spat out a partially chewed cherry tomato onto the floor.
"That was the first tomato that I tasted that I didn't like," said the first-grader.
"At the other school that I used to go to there wasn't a salad bar," Torsten said. "So, it's really the only salad bar I've been to and it's pretty good."
Claire, the kindergartner, said she does miss sweets on her lunch menu. School officials removed desserts from lunch offerings to help pay for higher-priced organic produce.
"I wish they had desserts," Claire said.
To see more of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, for online features, or to subscribe, go to http://seattlep-I.com.
Â© 1998-2004 Seattle Post-Intelligencer. All Rights Reserved.