The 10-year-old boy sat grinning at the colorful cellophane wrappers piled in front of him.
Moments earlier they'd held three warm doughnuts. Now the treats were in the fifth-grader's belly along with 600 calories, 18 grams of fat and 36 grams of sugar.
Sure, these reduced-fat doughnuts were nutritionally fortified, but they were still doughnuts, and along with a cup of sweet juice, they made up the Chicago public school student's entire breakfast.
This year for the first time, the Chicago Public Schools are offering free universal breakfast to nearly every student, which is happy news for those who have urged schools to expand breakfast programs. Research has shown kids learn better when their stomachs aren't empty.
But some nutrition experts warn that the sugary processed foods city schools feed to children are setting them up for unhealthy habits and other problems.
City schools allow students to choose three items for breakfast one of them can always be a doughnut at the schools served by the district's main provider. Three doughnuts may be unusual, but recent visits to schools showed most students pairing them with Frosted Flakes, syrupy French toast and juice.
Health advocates say that's what happens when adults allow kids as young as 5 in a state with the fourth-highest child obesity levels in the nation to choose between an apple and a doughnut, scrambled eggs and Kellogg's Pop-Tarts, oatmeal and Kellogg's Froot Loops.
A Yale University professor said his research suggests that if sweets aren't offered, children will eat the healthier options. Kelly Brownell found that kids given a high-sugar cereal ate twice the recommended amount. Those given a low-sugar cereal still ate it, and in the recommended amount.
"And even though they were allowed to add sugar, they didn't add nearly enough to equal the sugar in the sugared cereal," said Brownell, who with colleagues, conducted the study for Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. "Plus, they added fruit. So it was a complete home run.
"What this study suggests is that the school system should just offer healthy choices, and then children will eat them. I see no excuse for the public schools feeding children cereals or other products that are high in sugar."
Nutritionist Shereen Jegtvig, who writes on health for About.com, said high-sugar meals can increase serotonin as they raise blood sugar.
"The increased serotonin tends to make you relaxed, sleepy, not alert," Jegtvig said. "Studies show better cognitive performance by kids who eat breakfasts with more protein or healthier cereals like oatmeal. Simple carbohydrates are also digested quickly, so a child will feel hungry well before lunchtime. And it's hard to concentrate on your studies when your stomach is growling."
Chicago schools' food service director Louise Esaian defended the breakfasts, saying: "All of the menus served in Chicago Public Schools meet the requirements established by the (U.S. Department of Agriculture). In the majority of our schools, students are offered a choice at breakfast." She, however, did not mention that those choices include sugary pastries.
In fact, Chicago parents could be forgiven for not knowing doughnuts are ever served in school. That's because the word doughnut never appears on any city school breakfast menu the Tribune examined. Instead, the menus say MVP Breakfast, the product's brand name.
City school officials did not respond to questions about why they use such an unrecognizable term on the menu.
But Kimberly Schwabenbauer, dietitian and marketing manager for the manufacturer, Pittsburgh-based Super Bakery, made it clear that she doesn't like to use the d-word when referring to her company's product: a round, sweet, cakey pastry with a hole in the middle. When she absolutely had to say "doughnut," she prefaced it with "quote unquote."
Created by former football star Franco Harris, the product was called Super Donut until this year, when the name changed to MVP Breakfast. Fortified with 14 vitamins and minerals, the product has recently lost some of its fat and sugar, Schwabenbauer said.
"I feel like we are missing the boat by judging products on the semantics of their name," she said.
But Allison Slade, principal of Chicago's Namaste Charter School, said she thinks that serving even "healthy" doughnuts may send the wrong message as children establish future eating patterns.
Chicago Public Schools breakfasts are big on doughnuts, sugary cereals
Nutrition experts cringe at free breakfasts high sugar content
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