Yesterday I stopped by the cafeteria at my daughter’s school here in the District of Columbia — H.D. Cooke Elementary — and this is what many of the kids were having for breakfast: A package of sugar-glazed cookies called Kellogg’s Crunchmania Cinnamon buns; chocolate- or strawberry-flavored milk; grape juice.

A 1.76-ounce packet of Crunchmania contains 13 grams of sugar, or 3 teaspoons. Chocolate milk packs 26 grams of sugar, somewhat more than 6 teaspoons. And the grape juice delivers 18 grams of sugar in a little four-ounce container, another four-plus teaspoons. Altogether, that’s more than 13 teaspoons of nutritionally worthless sugar first thing in the morning, courtesy of the public school system and its food service provider, Chartwells.

I came across one boy actually dipping the cookies into his chocolate milk. All further proof that you can pack school “foods” with “nutrition” at the factory, and still come up with products that have no business being served to children on a daily basis at school, especially in a city that has the highest concentration of adolescent obesity in the country.

As Marlene Schwartz, deputy director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, said recently, children have only a few “discretionary calories” to spend on sugary food. “So, my professional feeling is that discretionary calories (added sugar, fat) should be eaten at home, not at school.  I am in favor of schools focusing on providing key nutrients to children at school and not getting into the business of providing them with ‘treats.’”

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Perhaps equally as interesting are the other ingredients in this industrially processed melange. Kellogg’s lists these as the contents of Crunchmania Cinnamon Bun. Notice the trans-fats (less than .5 grams per serving):

 Enriched flour, sugar, whole wheat (graham) flour, vegetable oil (partially hydrogenated soybean, cottonseed and hydrogenated cottonseed oil with TBHQ and citric acid for freshness), high fructose corn syrup, contains two percent or less of salt, calcium carbonate, natural and artificial flavors (contain milk), baking soda, soy lecithin, propylene glycol alginate, corn starch, and added B vitamins.

Sound good to you?

The chocolate milk from Cloverland Dairy in Baltimore also has more ingredients that you might think: fat-free milk, high-fructose corn syrup, cocoa (processed with alkali), salt, carrageenan, artificial flavor (vanillin), plus vitamins A and B.

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The grape juice is 100 percent juice. But the level of sugar in grape juice is actually 50 percent higher, ounce-for-ounce, than in Coca-Cola. And while fruit juice may sound healthy, the sugar comes in the form of fructose, which is metabolized somewhat differently than other sugars in that it goes straight to the liver. Fructose has been implicated in a surge of fatty liver disease, as well as in metabolic disorders such as obesity and diabetes.

Couldn’t they just give the kids some actual grapes? Unfortunately, that would probably cost quite a bit more.

I hope First Lady Michelle Obama is taking all this in as she prepares to unveil on Tuesday her campaign against childhood obesity. We don’t have to plant a garden or shop at a farmers market to eat more healthfully. We can start by eliminating the culture of sugar in public schools and feeding kids real food.

This would be a good place to begin as well in the “Healthy Schools” bill pending before the D.C. Schools. Like the regulations for federally reimbursable school meals formulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the “Healthy Schools” legislation places no limit on the amount of sugar that can be served with school meals, and contains specific exemptions for flavored milk and fruit juice in proposed standards that otherwise regulate the amount of sugar that individual food items may contain.

The First Lady could also tell her husband President Obama that school lunches need more than the piddlin’ amount he recently proposed in his new budget.

You can have your say about school food next Wednesday, Feb. 10, when “Healthy Schools” comes up for a hearing in the D.C. Council. That’s at 10 a.m. in room 412 of the John A. Wilson Building, 1350 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. You can sign up to testify by e-mail here: ABenjamin@DCCOUNCIL.US.

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