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School Nutrition: Making the Grade?

New policies aim to reduce childhood obesity.
By
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.

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