Food fight has Maine fifth-graders popping mad

SHORTLY before 9 a.m., the state official calls the hearing to order. The clerk announces the first witness, who steps to the podium as press cameras click and whir. ``Hello, my name is Shannon Gerrish,'' she begins. ``I am here today to talk to you about modifying the regulation restricting the sale of food while school is in progress.''

It could be just another ho-hum session under the dangling fluorescent lights here at the State House - except for one thing. Shannon is in sixth grade. So are the next two witnesses. And so is half the audience.

A mock hearing? An exercise in state government to launch the new school year? Not at all. So real is the issue, in fact, that some heavy-hitting Maine associations - representing superintendents, school boards, and principals - have weighed in on the side of the students. Opposing the change are a bevy of high-level food service administrators and nutritionists.

And the issue? It all began innocently enough. Last winter the students in Dolores Loftus's fifth-grade class at the Frank Jewett School in rural Buxton sold popcorn during afternoon recess. The goal of their fund raising was to adopt a whale - which, as 11-year-old Darby Kopp patiently explained to the two state education officials at the horseshoe-shaped hearing-room table, means that ``you get information about a certain whale and it is considered yours for a whole year.'' But the school's food service director clamped down, citing a state regulation requiring funds from in-school food sales to be turned over to the school's food service program.

The kids could have dropped the issue: They had raised $150, adopted their whale, and even taken an all-day whale-watching cruise. Instead, they invited into the classroom state Rep. Kerry Kimball (R) and Portland lawyer Donald Kopp (Darby's father), who is well versed in education law. The students began seeing ways to change the rule without endangering the sometimes lean finances of school lunch programs or the fat federal dollars they get. And, under Mrs. Loftus's direction, they started writing letters.

``There were times when they said to me, `We have to write another letter?' '' says Loftus. ``But that's one of the things I strive for in my classroom - to let the kids know that, as bad as situations sometimes are, they can make the difference.''

The letters went to David W. Brown, associate commissioner of the Department of Education and Cultural Services, who would ultimately preside at the Sept. 8 hearing. In his replies, last March, he explained the federal and state statutes. He also alerted the students to a procedure they could use to change a state regulation. Only one hitch: The procedure required 150 signatures on a petition - from registered voters, not fifth-graders.

That fact might have scuttled their plans, were it not for a fluke of local geography. The Buxton schools sit next to the town hall - and on June 14 there was an election. So that day, recalls Shannon, ``we went down and sat on the front lawn at the school, and when people came out after they were voting, we went over and explained to them what we were doing and asked if they would support us.''

That effort, combined with some weekend time spent outside the local grocery store with Loftus, netted 151 names. And that meant the state officials had to schedule a hearing. Not that there was much objection. ``They've handled it very well,'' said Mr. Brown, himself a former school superintendent, during a break in the hearing. ``And they've been very serious about it - very thorough,'' he added. ``It's an exciting project for the kids.''

For the kids, however, it was obviously more than just a project. Marshaling their thoughts carefully, they blasted away at the arguments they knew would be leveled against them. ``When you sell food,'' said Darby, ``you feel that you've done the work and you are proud of yourself.'' Selling pencils, he noted, doesn't involve your own creative effort, while ``if you go on a bottle drive, the parents do most of the work.'' State officials were also told that popcorn is nutritious, that the students didn't sell it before or during lunch, and that the project exposed them to such real-life skills as production, packaging, advertising, and marketing.

The proposed new language for the regulation would allow the building principal to approve exceptions to the prohibition. For Buxton's principal, Paul Vincent, that change goes to the heart of the issue, which he sees as local versus state authority. ``Remember,'' he chuckles, ``this is New England. Local control is awfully popular.''

He's confident that the commissioner and the State Board of Education will makes some changes once the period for written comment expires Nov. 21. ``I think they're in a position where they have to do something,'' he says, adding that ``I was surprised that most of the testimony was in favor of the change - I expected a lot of lunch people to come.''

The ``lunch people'' - the professional food service administrators - did indeed come. And, to the kids' dismay, they offered lengthy arguments against competitive food service in the schools - citing dental, nutritional, financial, and sanitary reasons. ``We could be opening a Pandora's box,'' noted Helen Rankin, a past president of the Maine School Food Service Association. ``There are times we have to say `no' to children.''

But most of them also suggested ways in which the rule could be softened. ``At least,'' noted sixth-grader Andy Gauvin with satisfaction, ``they're not coming over and saying, ``We're going to do this, and you can't do anything about it.''

Some of his classmates, however, were not so sure. After listening to a state nutritionist complain about potato chips, soda, and candy bars, one youngster zeroed in on the flaw in her logic. ``They're making popcorn sound so bad,'' she exploded after the hearing, ``but they're using candy bars as the example!''

``We didn't put gobs of salt and butter on it!'' answered her friend, recalling their own popcorn sale as she walked past the State Office Building cafeteria - from which, by one of life's grand ironies, the smell of fresh-popped popcorn wafted.

But it was young Erin Clark, trooping up the sidewalk for her class's impromptu photo session with Maine's governor, John R. McKernan Jr., who may have put the best spin on the morning's events. Referring to the extensive dangers painted by the food service administrators, her voice filled with disappointment at the grown-up world.

``They made a popcorn sale sound like World War III,'' she said.

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