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Schools, parks at vanguard of nutrition effort

Nancy Becker once scanned the label on a package of cookies sold at the former Fernwood Middle School, and noticed the 600-calorie product was billed as five servings. “No child was going to divide it up with four of his buddies,” says Becker, a Portland registered dietitian who raised two sons. Most adults require 2,000 to 3,000 calories a day, and those cookies help explain why one-fourth of the children in Multnomah County are overweight. In 2007, the Oregon Nutrition Policy Alliance lobbied the Oregon Legislature to pass new nutrition standards for food sold in public schools outside the cafeterias. House Bill 2650, which took effect in 2008, requires schools to supply less-fattening food in vending machines and concessions. It set a 200-calorie limit for snacks sold in high schools, and different standards for elementary and middle schools. “If schools are obeying the law,” says Becker, chairwoman of the Oregon Nutrition Policy Alliance, “they’re not selling large bags of potato chips; they’re not selling sugar-sweetened beverages and they’re not selling candy.” The law lacks an enforcement mechanism, and spot checks show not all schools are fully complying. Portland Parks and Recreation decided to use the high school standards, starting last June, for food sold at its 15 recreation centers. Youngsters flock to the city swimming pools, while adults partake in fitness classes and other programs to stay in shape or lose weight. Reducing all the tantalizing and fatty foods sold at recreation centers seemed like a natural for a bureau whose motto is “Healthy Parks, Healthy People,” says Emily Hicks, policy coordinator for Portland Parks Commissioner Nick Fish. Some recreation center managers, who get to spend proceeds from the vending machines and food concessions on their programs, worried they might lose revenue, Hicks says. But the parks bureau didn’t have to negotiate with the Oregon Commission for the Blind, which lacks the statutory authority to control food concessions in parks. “I’m thankful that the recreation centers don’t fall under that, because that could make it more difficult,” Hicks says. The recreation centers cut the oil used for popcorn and lowered the sodium in their nacho cheese. Power bars replaced candy bars. Hicks is working to improve the nutritional value of food sold at the Rose Festival and the Safeway Waterfront Blues Festival, which use park property during the summer. — Steve Law