Hot dogs and soda don’t belong in schools, says one healthy-food advocate, who criticized the board of education at its Sept. 18 meeting for what he sees as a lack of effort in encouraging nutritious eating and providing healthy food in the school cafeterias.

“Having sodas and hot dogs and nitrates and sweeteners will not produce highly academic kids,” Abraham Dickerson said during the meeting. “How come the leaders in this town do not feel it’s imperative for our kids to eat pure, clean food, like they do in restaurants?”

Dickerson is the owner and chef of Abe Foods and has routinely spoken out at school board meetings on food and nutrition-related issues.
He was especially critical of how there appeared to be vending machines on school property selling sodas and sugary drinks.

In response to his comments, members of the BOE pointed to a vending machine in the cafeteria of the George Inness Annex, where school board meetings are usually held. The vending machine was empty, but later in the week, Dickerson told the Montclair Local that there were in fact vending machines on school property, including the Montclair High School cafeteria, that have sodas in them.

During the meeting, BOE President Laura Hertzog told Dickerson and the audience that the district was looking into the matter.

Interim Superintendent Barbara Pinsak said on Sept. 20, a few days after the meeting, “We have a tentative understanding of the issue but do not want to respond until we are absolutely certain of our facts.”

Over the past decade, school districts have begun eliminating sodas and other sugary drinks from on-campus vending machines, due to concerns about childhood and adolescent obesity.

The 2014 federal Smart Snacks for Schools standards, which apply to foods sold in vending machines and in other school settings, require all foods and beverages to meet nutrition standards.

The Smart Snacks standards for beverages allow for water, milk, juice and diluted juice to be sold at all school levels, and for low- and no-calorie beverages to be served in high schools.

The New Jersey Department of Agriculture restricts or discourages schools from serving “foods of minimal nutritional value” or providing them for sale on school property during school hours, according to the state’s Model School Nutrition Policy. “Foods of minimal nutritional value are virtually ‘empty calorie’ foods and would not meet any of our other standards in the policy. They include soda, water ices, chewing gum and certain types of candy,” the policy states.

The district has not provided information on who manages the vending machines or decides what to stock them with.

“There needs to be will. There needs to be will on nutrition,” Dickerson said after the Sept. 18 meeting.

On Sept. 19, the district posted on its website a new set of guidelines for the serving of any food that isn’t part of the official food service program.

The guidelines include when food may be sold for fundraising purposes, what foods may be used for instructional material, such as during science labs and home economics, and restrictions on food being served in the classrooms. For example, food is not allowed for in-class birthday parties, but food served in the classrooms or at all-school festivities must be free of tree nuts and peanuts.