LEWISTON – At Lewiston High School there would be no more pizza, turkey Italians, cheeseburgers, chicken nuggets, or even veggie burgers if a bill mandating only healthy food be sold in schools is passed by the Legislature.

Declining food sales would mean 11 jobs would be eliminated, warned Michael Sanborn, director of the School Nutrition Programs for the Lewiston School Department.

Because the bill says that only food with healthy amounts of fat and sugar – 30 to 35 percent – could be in food at schools, “approximately 70 percent of the food choice would not be allowed to Lewiston High School customers,” Sanborn testified Thursday during a public hearing on L.D. 796.

Bill sponsor Rep. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, disagreed Friday, saying Sanborn’s assessment “doesn’t make any sense. What could be in an Italian that’s not good for you?” unless the sandwich is so large it constitutes two or three servings.

“I don’t agree with him, but I do agree it’s going to take some effort” getting healthier foods in schools, Craven said. “There’s unhealthy food everywhere. We should make sure that only healthy food is put in front of kids at school.”

Other testimony indicates that Maine school administrators have problems with the bill, which, in addition to mandating healthy food, proposes that schools:

• Require students take more physical education.

• Teach nutrition.

• Post nutritional information of menu items.

• Give students at least 20 minutes for lunch to avoid having them rush or eat junk food.

• Confidentially assess students’ height and weight.

• Install milk vending machines and provide more local fruits and vegetables.

• Ban advertising for soda and other junk food on school grounds.

The bill seeks to implement recommendations from a state commission that studied what could be done to thin down Mainers, since a majority are overweight or obese.

Among those opposing or raising concerns was David MacDowell, food service director for the Bath public schools.

The bill would eliminate many items now sold in Bath schools, he said, including chicken nuggets, chicken sandwiches, hamburgers, spaghetti with meat sauce, hot dogs and milk, MacDowell said.

Speaking for Maine school boards and the Maine school superintendents, former legislator Wendy Pieh of the Maine School Management Association said restricting certain foods in schools may cause students to bring lunches that are even less healthy.

The MSMA listed problems with nearly every aspect of the bill.

It asked how schools, with schedules already jammed, could require students to take two or three hours of gym each week.

Mandating that students have 20 minutes for lunch interferes with the local collective bargaining process, and before schools provide local fruits and vegetables a cost study should be done, the MSMA said.

But the bill also had plenty of support.

The Maine PTA, the Maine Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Heart Association in Maine, school nutritionists and school nurses said the proposals are long overdue and necessary to improve the health of Maine children.

Diana Hixon of Bath, a nurse and mother of two, said that without mandates, food service directors can take liberties with “a la carte” offerings to make money, she said, adding it’s easy to sell sugar-laden cinnamon buns, candy-coated ice cream, or high-sugar beverages to kids.

Dr. Robert Holmberg of the Maine Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics said Maine has “a startling epidemic of childhood obesity with 36 percent of kindergartners now overweight or obese.”

The reasons: too much junk food and too much chair time, habits youngsters are learning early.

Since children spend much of their time in school, schools are the place to model healthy food and exercise, Holmberg said.

The Education Committee is scheduled to debate the bill on May 5.

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