The state Board of Education has a message for students: eat right and don't just sit there.
In a state where one-third of elementary and secondary students are overweight and obese, the state board Thursday gave initial approval to new standards for nutrition and physical activity for schools.
"Getting junk foods out of our schools -- and getting healthier food options and 30 minutes of daily physical activity into them -- are simple steps that can have a tremendous impact for our young people," said state board Chairman Joe Torsella.
Mr. Torsella said many studies have shown that "exercise and better nutrition translate into better achievement in school."
Following a series of reviews, the regulation is expected to return to the board for potential changes and a second vote in six to nine months, after which more reviews are required. The policy may take effect in the 2011-12 or 2012-13 school year.
The 15-page proposal addresses two main areas: food offered in schools other than the standard school lunch and physical activity, including recess and mandated amounts of physical education classes.
On food, the proposed regulation tries to ensure healthful options in so-called "competitive" food -- that is vending machines, a la carte choices and other items that compete with the standard school lunch.
It does not apply to school-sponsored events outside the regular school day.
Nor does it cover food students bring from home.
It also permits schools to provide an exception for "homemade or home-baked goods for fundraisers."
"The intent of this is to be reasonable. It's not to be the bake sale police," said Mr. Torsella.
Michael Peck, director of food service for Pittsburgh Public Schools, said most of the nutrition rules are similar to state standards that Pittsburgh and some other school districts have adopted voluntarily.
He said the current plan, however, has more accountability, providing for schools to forfeit money if they fail to comply.
Mr. Torsella said that too few schools have followed the voluntary program and some still sell sugary sodas in school.
Some of the food standards relate directly to the nutritional values, such as milk can only be 1 percent or fat-free and each item must have less than 230 mg of sodium except for a la carte entrees, which may have as much as 480 mg of sodium per portion.
But some of it relates to how food is consumed, such as ensuring that classroom parties and celebrations do not interfere with lunch and may begin no sooner than 30 minutes after the last lunch period unless the party involves serving a meal in place of lunch.
It also states that food and beverages "may not be withheld or provided as a reward, incentive or punishment."
On physical activity, the regulation calls for 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily for every student. Moderate activity is the same intensity as brisk walking. Vigorous activity causes a person to sweat and breathe hard, according to the board's definition.
At least 20 minutes of the requirement must be in scheduled recess at elementary and middle schools. High schools are "encouraged" to offer at least 20 minutes for a physical activity break.
It also mandates a set amount of time -- an increase for many schools -- for formal physical education classes, some of which could be used to meet the 30-minute daily activity as long as the recess time is met.
Elementary schools will be required to provide 150 minutes of phys ed classes per week, and middle and high schools 225 minutes per week. At least half of class time must be spent on moderate-to-vigorous physical activity.
While the state has content standards, physical education would be the only subject with a required number of minutes.
Alexis Steines, public affairs associate for the national School Nutrition Association, said there is a national movement toward more nutrition standards in schools.
Such standards, she said, "ensure that no matter what students opt to eat in school, they're going to be eating something that's healthy, nutritious and balanced."
Cheryl Richardson, senior program manager for physical education for the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, was pleased to see the requirements for recess and physical education classes.
"I think getting kids in the habit of moving, the younger the better," she said.
Education writer Eleanor Chute: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1955.