PORTLAND (AP) – As the new school year begins, many students in Maine will find healthier foods when they go to the cafeteria.

Districts that receive federal money for their breakfast and lunch programs were required to adopt policies by July 1 to promote student health and reduce obesity by providing healthy foods, nutrition education and increased physical activity.

In Topsham, for example, that will mean white bread, whole milk and sugary snacks will be replaced by whole-wheat bread, skim milk and fruits.

The York school district has taken a more low-key approach and adopted a statement in support of nutritious food and physical education without making any specific changes.

While communities have reacted to new food policies with varying degrees of enthusiasm, statistics provide a strong argument in favor of the changes. Thirty percent of Maine children ages 10 to 17 are considered overweight or obese, the highest rate in New England and 25th nationwide.

Houlton school officials, who thought students were looking heavier, decided to conduct an analysis and found out that their observations were correct. The analysis showed that 27 percent of the kindergarten class was overweight, and by grade six, more than 40 percent were overweight.

“It was pretty shocking,” said Lynn Brown, school health coordinator in Houlton.

As a result, the district is providing healthier food such as whole-wheat bread and fruit.

Maine’s Legislature banned soda and candy in the schools last year but rejected a measure to set statewide minimum physical education requirements. Most states are considering bills that would increase or reform physical education programs.

The new food policies prompted by federal mandates could have an impact on more than students’ health. Some school districts, such as Newport, are turning to local farmers to add more fresh fruits and vegetables to their cafeterias.

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