A ban on pizza parties. Mandatory body fat tests. More exercise.

Maine schoolchildren could see a dramatic change in their day if a new bill passes the Legislature.

“We are in a health care crisis, and we need to start somewhere,” said Rep. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, co-sponsor of the bill.

The proposal, based on recent recommendations by the Legislature’s Commission to Study Public Health, would make more than a dozen changes in the way schools deal with food and nutrition. It will be the subject of a public hearing next week.

Some changes would be modest, such as requiring at least 20 minutes for lunch every day.

Others would be more extreme – and are proving more controversial. One provision would prohibit teachers from using food and drinks as rewards or incentives.

“I think they’re going too far,” said Bob Staples, a sixth-grade teacher at Dirigo Middle School in Dixfield.

Like many teachers, Staples and his co-workers use pizza, ice cream or Popsicles once or twice a year to entice students into doing well or to reward them for fund raising.

“Let’s face it, kids are kids; if we say, ‘OK, we’re going to have an apple and fresh pear party,'” Staples said, “they’re not going to get excited.”

At Dirigo, a sixth-grade class recently won an afternoon pizza party when it raised hundreds of dollars for the victims of the South Asian tsunami. A few months ago, high school seniors in the same district got a pizza party and an ice cream sundae buffet when they scored well on the state’s standardized test.

Like other teachers and administrators, Staples considers such rewards a special treat for students who work hard. They don’t infringe on lunch and they happen only once or twice a year, he said. And students don’t get to binge.

“I think the Legislature’s got better things to do than get too picky with things like that,” he said.

Under the bill, elementary and middle school students would also be required to get 2½ hours of exercise every week, in addition to recess. High school students would be required to get more than 3½ hours of exercise.

Currently, younger students generally have about 30 to 45 minutes for gym class every week. High school students might get a couple of hours in gym, but not every semester and not every year.

Many area school leaders said they’d love to see their kids get more exercise. But with increasing state standards, federal mandates and testing requirements, they said they just don’t have the time.

“It would greatly impact our teaching of the basics and the content areas, which we’re already struggling with,” said Katy Grondin, principal of Sherwood Heights in Auburn.

While some teachers and school leaders are wary of the bill’s dramatic mandates and say parents need to take charge of their children’s weight problems more than schools, others say the bill is a good place to start. They believe the changes are long overdue.

Ronella Paradis, a school nurse in Sabattus and a member of the Lewiston School Committee, said she sees kids every day who are overweight. The extra pounds have sapped the students’ energy level and have affected asthma. The weight lowers their self-esteem.

Paradis said the bill would mean more work for schools and would cost both time and money. But she believes it would ultimately help students.

“I really think we need to do it for the future of our kids,” she said.

The Legislature’s education committee will hold a public hearing on the bill at 1 p.m. Thursday, March 17, at the Cross Building in Augusta.

Student health proposal

The bill would:

• Prohibit schools from using food and drinks as rewards or incentives

• Require at least 2½ hours of exercise a week for young students and more than 3½ hours of exercise a week for high school students

• Detail portion sizes and ban the sale of certain foods on school grounds

• Require schools to track the body mass of students in grades one, three, five, seven and nine

• Require schools to set aside at least 20 minutes for lunch every day

• Order schools to post nutritional information about their food

• Seek to determine whether Maine could legally restrict junk food advertisements geared to kids under 12.

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