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Assembly approves bill regulating food at child-care centers

The Assembly has passed a bill to set minimum standards for food in licensed child-care centers, requiring a vegetable to be part of lunch and supper and forbidding whole milk for children 2 or older.

The food children eat in kindergarten through 12th grade in public school is regulated for fat and salt content, among other things. But for many preschool children, there have been no such dietary rules.

“California enjoys a worldwide reputation for its sunny, healthy lifestyle,” said the bill’s author, Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica). “Childhood obesity rates threaten to steal this enviable position.”

The bill, which passed the Assembly on Wednesday by a 48-27 vote, now heads to the Senate.

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If it becomes law, AB 627 would require low-fat or skim milk to be served to children 2 years old and older. It would limit sugar in cereals and eliminate deep frying and sweetened drinks. It also would establish an 18-month pilot project to evaluate stronger nutrition and physical activities standards.

In Los Angeles County, 350,000 children 5 and younger spend at least a part of their day in child care. The county licenses 2,230 child-care centers and about 7,800 family child-care homes.

Food served at child-care centers based in homes, community centers, churches and other locations is one key to a lifetime of healthy eating, said Matthew Sharp, senior advocate with the California Food Policy Advocates, which sponsored the bill.

“We can’t possibly solve the healthcare crisis” without nutritional improvements, Sharp said. “We’re paying one way or another.”

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Sharp said there are inexpensive alternatives to fried potatoes, fruit canned in syrup, whole milk and processed foods.

Programs such as Head Start make nutrition a priority, and child-care centers that receive federal money -- less than half the centers, according to Sharp’s organization -- have some obligations to serve healthful food. But in private day-care centers, there is a wide range of food served, Sharp said.

“I do think it’s important that we have a guideline that says, ‘This is the minimum standard,’ ” said Sandra Dennis, owner of Best Steps Family Child Care in Lakewood, which serves two meals and two snacks each day to about a dozen children.

Dennis, who was on a committee to consider the guidelines, said the law would not require providers to spend more but might require imagination. “It’s about making healthy choices and about learning how to shop,” she said Friday.

Opponents said they were unwilling to add to regulations and to add a mandate to child-care providers. Brownley’s office said no child-care providers opposed the bill, which does not provide additional funding.

A study funded by the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation that looked at lunches at 54 child-care sites in Los Angeles County found the least nutritious food was eaten when children brought food from home. Quality improved, researchers said, in places where the children helped set up meals. The study also found that only about a fifth of centers served whole grains, and almost half of the lunches contained a high-fat meat.

An estimated 20.7% of the county’s preschoolers are obese. In the state, a quarter of children ages 2 to 5 are overweight or obese. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four U.S. children ages 2 through 5 has a body mass index in the 85th percentile or higher.

In a report in January, the CDC noted that only Michigan and West Virginia require that child-care center menus be consistent with federal dietary guidelines.

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The bill would require compliance by Jan. 1, 2011. It would not impose penalties.

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mary.macvean@latimes.com


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