School Nutrition: Making the Grade?

New policies aim to reduce childhood obesity.

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Nearly 50 million kids are back in school, ready for reading, writing, and arithmetic. Along with new teachers and lesson plans, they will also find new policies governing what they can eat and drink while at school.

Much has changed since the National School Lunch program was launched 60 years ago. Most notably, 17% of kids are now overweight, and children are increasingly developing "adult" diseases, such as high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol and diabetes. According to the CDC, up to 40% of today's children will develop Type 2 diabetes during their lives if something doesn't change.

Starting this school year, U.S. policy requires all school districts participating in federal meal programs to implement "wellness policies" -- detailed plans incorporating nutrition education, physical activity, and healthier food choices on campus. The policies also set nutrition guidelines for all foods sold at school, including those available in vending machines.

"Kids spend a great deal of time at school, which is why [schools have] been targeted with the huge task of educating kids about the importance of good nutrition and making healthy food choices; encouraging active lifestyles; and serving nutritious food and drinks at mealtime, in vending machines and during parties, celebrations, and fund-raising," says Alicia Moag-Stahlberg, MS, RD, executive director for the nonprofit Action for Healthier Kids organization.

Experts say schools are a logical place to start stemming the tide of obesity. Not only are school-aged children in the process of establishing lifetime eating habits, research has actually linked proper nutrition to better academic performance.

"We need to help kids make the right decisions, and we do that by serving healthy food and educating them in the classroom about the importance of diet and nutrition," says Connie Mueller, RD, spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association.

Keeping It Local

Specific guidelines are left to the discretion of each state, district and local school board. But the policies must meet minimum federal guidelines, which specify, for example, that vending machines be locked during meals, and not be located in the cafeteria.

"What has worked so well is allowing each local school district to design their own policies because what works in one district may not work in another," says Mueller, a school food service director in Bloomington, Ill. "Having discretion at the local level is key to the success of the policies."

Foundations, cities, school boards, neighborhood organizations, food companies, and parents across the country were involved in developing the wellness policies.

"Six thousand volunteers -- including dietitians, principals, students, and parents -- are working together to help implement good nutrition and quality physical activity in our nation's schools," says Moag-Stahlberg, whose organization helps create state teams that develop, implement, and monitor the school wellness policies.

Parties and Fund-Raisers

Some schools have gone so far as to ban cupcakes during class birthday parties, Moag-Stahlberg says. Parents and educators are being urged to consider healthier snack choices for homeroom celebrations.

"There is a groundswell of support for healthier items in the cafeteria, classroom, vending [machines] and ... at fund-raisers," says Moag-Stahlbert. "It is up to the schools to establish their own nutrition policy with guidelines that foster healthy choices, and some have eliminated the classroom parties because it is one of the easier changes to implement."

Schools have taken a variety of approaches to the wellness policies. Some have focused on nutrients, calories, and/or portion sizes to determine which foods will be allowed to be sold.

In some schools, the only beverages allowed are water, non-carbonated calorie-free waters, sports drinks, 100% fruit juice, and 1% or skim milk (plain or flavored).

For example, the Alabama Department of Public Health has issued a "Guide to Healthy Vending Machines" for the state's school districts. The model policy allows snacks that contain less than 30 grams of carbohydrates and 360 milligrams of sodium, are low to moderate in fat, high in fiber, and high in at least one nutrient in each 1 to 1.5 ounce serving. Foods that qualify include fruit, nuts, sunflower seeds, certain cereals, granola and oatmeal bars, soft pretzels, certain simple crackers or cookies, and baked chips.

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