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School Nutrition: Making the Grade?

New policies aim to reduce childhood obesity.

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.

Profit-Making Foods

One point of contention has been the sale of "competitive foods" -- that is, foods sold separately from those available through the school meal programs, including snack bars, vending machines, and fund-raisers.

Experts say that when there are no competitive foods, kids are more likely to eat school meals and thus consume more nutritious foods.

"The problem is, schools are strapped for finances and often turn to selling competitive foods to generate income; yet there is growing concern that these calories contribute to obesity," says Moag-Stahlberg.

Some schools are foregoing federal funds so they can continue to sell the profit-making junk foods thought to be one of the many causes of childhood obesity, Moag-Stahlberg says.

Most states already prohibit the sale of foods with minimal nutritional value during meal service and certain other times. Such foods include soda water, water ices (not including those containing fruit or fruit juice), chewing gum, and certain candies.

The good news, experts say, is that schools can make money on healthier items, Mueller says. The food industry has responded to public interest in health by creating and packaging more nutritious snacks.

Mealtime at School

School meals are already required to be relatively low in fat and rich in vitamins and minerals. Later this year, they will also be required to adhere to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2005 Dietary Guidelines.

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