Schools Ahead of the Curve on Federal Nutrition Standards

Without charging more, some schools are making more money with healthier options

Released: 19-May-2014 12:00 PM EDT
Embargo expired: 20-May-2014 5:00 AM EDT
Source Newsroom: Voices for Healthy Kids
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Newswise — Thousands of schools around the country already are finding new ways of providing “smart” snacks for students – well in advance of updated federal nutrition standards that begin this year.

With the arrival of the 2014-15 school year, schools across the United States will be following updated Department of Agriculture rules governing snacks and drinks in vending machines, stores and à la carte lines. The guidelines limit the amount of calories, fat, and sugar, and encourage whole grains, low fat, fruits and vegetables. More than 200,000 parents, education leaders and health advocates spoke out in favor of the updated guidelines.

In Cincinnati, with 34,680 students in the school system, administrators have reduced the number of vending machines, turn them on only after 4:30 p.m. and work with vendors to provide healthier offerings. They ask vendors to help with wellness initiatives, using an extra $5,000 a year for programs and new offerings like salad bars. At the same time, the district encourages participation in the reimbursable meals program by setting the prices at the same price point as the à la carte items and snacks. That participation has increased by 7,000 meals, which offsets any lost revenue from vending.

“Some principals were worried about losing the revenue, but then they realized that our margin of revenue had increased. I haven’t heard any complaints since,” said Jessica Shelly, Cincinnati’s food service director.

In Hall County schools in Gainesville, Ga., all elementary schools now only sell water and are serving healthier snacks in school stores and à la carte lines. The whole district, with 21,730 students, swapped out sports drinks in vending machines in favor of water and overhauled school stores. It also replaced unhealthy ice cream products with healthier versions in the à la carte lines.

The “450 bottles of water sold out by 10 a.m. The healthier pretzels? Sold out,” says Jacob Weirs, district wellness coordinator. “Students will buy what is there.”

At Southern Middle School in Lexington, Ky., administrators work with local groups to help fund the purchase of healthy snacks for its school store. The school offers samples to its 697 students – and it collects their feedback and prioritizes their preferences. All of its snacks already meet federal nutrition guidelines.

“Change is hard, but it is worth it, and we are moving forward,” said Angela Stark, physical education and health teacher. “Kids will buy whatever is available — we’ve just made sure the available items are healthy choices.”

The Alliance for a Healthier Generation, an organization founded by the American Heart Association and the Clinton Foundation to help reduce the prevalence of childhood obesity, has worked with schools since the inception of its Healthy Schools Program in 2006, when it began developing nutrition guidelines for school snacks and drinks. Those same guidelines helped inform the USDA’s updated standards for school snacks and drinks. Today, more than 22,000 schools in every state, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, are enrolled in the Alliance’s Healthy Schools Program.

Voices for Healthy Kids, a collaboration of the American Heart Association and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation also is working with state agencies and local school boards on ways to make sure healthier foods and drinks are offered in schools.

Here is a sampling of school changes already rippling across the country, and the impacts:

The Perry County and Bessemer City school districts in Alabama already are providing snack options that meet federal nutrition standards. In Perry County, the vending machines sell only water and 100 percent fruit juice, and they are turned off during lunch. Bessemer City Schools removed its vending machines all together and now limit snack sales to à la carte lines, where staff can better manage inventory and offer healthier items like all-fruit slushies. Perry County’s student population is 1,924; Bessemer City’s is 4,480.

“We need to help our students be healthier,” said Joyce Banks, Perry County’s food service director. “We’re defeating the purpose of offering healthier meals if our snack guidelines aren’t aligned.”

Anderson County’s district four in Pendleton, S.C., has a healthy snack cart for middle school students who might be hungry mid-morning and a faculty that works to meet the new culture of healthy snacks by not serving pizza and cake for staff development days. The district, with 2,878 students, hasn’t lost money by eliminating junk food sales. “We have been doing it for three years, and we have found that kids will buy whatever we offer,” says Joanne Avery, deputy superintendent.

In Topeka, Kansas, students at Seaman High School are being brought into the whole process by allowing a student-led movement to expand snack options and holding taste tests to help pick new, healthier snack foods.
When new state-level nutrition guidelines were being adopted, the school banded together with other locals schools to strengthen buying power and push vendors to provide healthier options.

“That helped because we could show buying power,” says Claudia Welch, a physical education and health teacher at Seaman. “When the new state guidelines went into effect, our voices had even more power.”

At Plattsmouth High School in Plattsmouth, Neb, with a student population of 517, administrators revamped every venue selling snacks and drinks, including vending machines, the school store, the snack cart and cafeteria à la carte line. The school also started a new fresh fruit cart that also boosts overall school food profits. Principal Jeff Wiles says it is important to set strong rules and stick to them, to be patient and take small steps, and to empower students. The school removed all full-calorie drinks from its beverage machines. “We sell as many bottles of water now as what we sold of soda five years ago,” he said.

At SUPER School at Frederick Douglass School 19 in Indianapolis, Ind., there are no vending machines or à la carte sales; instead, students can have extra fruit, vegetables, and healthy drinks during lunch. There also is a policy against rewarding students with unhealthy foods. Each of the school’s 420 students receives a free healthy breakfast and lunch, and an entree salad is offered as an option for lunch every day. Parents bring healthy snacks like apples or yogurt for birthdays, and the school has a blender for smoothies during special events.

“I asked one vendor for a vending machine with only healthy items in it. They were willing to do half healthy items, but not all. So I said no,” said Audrey Satterbloom, the district’s wellness supervisor.

The High School for Public Service in New York, N.Y, now has access to a store at lunch and after school with healthier snack options. The 418 students there have embraced the change.

“The store is still going great,” says Eric Ferreira, a parent coordinator. “We bought a freezer so we can stock fruit slushes, fruit bars, and fruit cups. Last semester (in fall 2013) we had a profit of about $2,000.”

The Philadelphia School District, with its 165,694 students, tightened its policy on beverages in 2006 and began pricing water lower than 100 percent fruit and milk options to encourage students to drink more water. The school also promotes reimbursable healthy school meals to offset any loss in revenue from sales of snacks and à la carte.


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