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Wednesday, May 25, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 a.m.

Nicole Brodeur

Schools may gain by losing fat

Seattle Times staff columnist

The Seattle schools we worried would close have been spared. Great.

But our math problem remains on the board, people: Where to find the money to ease the district's budget pain? Enid Hohn says a way to drop at least some revenue into the schools' ever-leaking bucket is to drop the right kinds of snacks into vending machines. Hohn, a registered dietitian, has quadrupled vending-machine revenue at one California high school, and in the process, helped fight childhood obesity by limiting kids to healthful choices.

"It just has to be appealing," said Hohn, 52, director of child-nutrition services at the Vista Unified School District in Oceanside, Calif.

She replaced candy and chips with bagels, Nutri-Grain bars, Pop-Tarts, fresh fruit and vegetables. And it went.

Hohn told the Puget Sound Educational District this month how she phased out sugary sodas by telling students she had simply run out. They had no choice but to buy water and fruit juice.

The key, she said, is offering students only good food, and no bad stuff, "because they will always take the Snickers bar."

In the three and a half years Hohn has run the vending program at Vista High School, she has handed school officials $120,000 of her profits.

By comparison, she said, Rancho Buena Vista High School's candy-and-soda contract with Coca-Cola netted that school only $78,000 in five years. Hohn took over, and made the school $20,000 in four months.

Could we do the same here?

Food in the schools is an issue that brings heartburn even to those who haven't carried a tray in years.

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Last week, the Seattle City Council voted to ban mobile vendors — pizza trucks — within 1,000 feet of public schools.

Council members called it a strike against childhood obesity. But they did it at the urging of the union that represents cafeteria workers, whose pay and benefits are linked to the number of meals served.

Seattle's high-school vending machines bring in some $300,000 annually, district spokesman Peter Daniels said.

Last year, after schools were urged to cut sugary, fatty snacks and drinks, Lynnwood High School saw its vending profits drop 40 percent. One Rainier Beach High teacher last year estimated his school would lose $15,000 a year.

The key to turning that tide, Hohn said, is to involve kids. She holds student focus groups: If this were in the machine, would you buy it?

Seattle officials are open to her thinking.

"Certainly," Daniels said, noting that nutrition staff attended Hohn's workshop.

Hohn's plan keeps profits inside the school. She has even started an in-house pizza business that's been duplicated by seven other school districts.

Hohn thinks a lot about the mixed messages we give to kids: Teachers reward them with candy. PTAs hold bake sales. Fund-raisers revolve around candy bars and cookie dough.

"What are we doing?"

Food for thought. Let's do the math, people.

Nicole Brodeur's column appears Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. Reach her at 206-464-2334 or nbrodeur@seattletimes.com.

She packs her own, thanks.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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