School Nutrition: Try to Reduce Childhood Obesity (cont.)

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.