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School Nutrition: Making the Grade?

New policies aim to reduce childhood obesity.
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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.

"Schools across the country are already adding more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy to meals," says Mueller. "The addition of fresh fruits and vegetables, delicious whole grains, and milk served cold in eye-appealing, easy-to-grasp bottles instead of antiquated, hard-to-open cartons, is teaching kids that healthy food tastes good.

"Let’s face it: if they don’t eat it, we have not done our jobs," she says.

Another perk of the school breakfast or lunch: "It teaches kids proper portion sizes," says Mueller.

Offering more healthy food may increase the cost of school meals somewhat, she says. But "these are great meals that are worth the money," she adds.

Can They Make a Difference?

The real question is whether these new policies can really make a difference in the waistlines of our nation’s children.

A preliminary analysis by Action for Healthy Kids recently found that only half of the 112 school districts in 42 states met even the federal government's minimum guidelines for nutrition and physical education.

"There are lots of challenges. The school wellness policies are an added requirement onto an already very full agenda” says Mueller.

But, she adds, "It is also exciting to see how each district is approaching the challenges and implementing policies that are working beautifully."

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Reviewed on September 15, 2006

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