Healthier Snacks for School Menus

  • November 01, 2013
  • by Burt Edwards

The Kids' Safe and Healthful Foods Project helps win adoption of new, healthier standards for snacks sold in schools.

"Improved snack food nutrition standards are an important step forward in improving kids' health."

When kids in Cincinnati's public schools get hungry for a snack these days, they have a lot of healthy choices: Fresh fruit, trail mix, and low-calorie drinks are all available. School officials say these snacks are being devoured by Cincinnati students, who are already getting the sort of snacks that should be available in nearly all schools next year.

In late June, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees school meal programs, released a new minimum nutritional baseline for snacks and beverages sold in a la carte lines, vending machines, and school stores—standards that encourage greater availability of whole grains, low-fat dairy, fruits, vegetables, and lean protein for students.

Children consume up to half of their daily calories in school, with a significant portion—an average of 112 extra calories daily—in the form of snacks. Yet, healthy snack options have been hard to find in many schools. According to recent research by the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project, “the vast majority of secondary schools in 49 states do not sell fruits and vegetables in snack food venues.” 

This collaboration between The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation works to improve nutrition standards for food available in America’s schools. The snack rule follows updated federal standards for cafeteria meals at breakfast and lunch that took effect last fall. Nutritional meal standards had not been revised since 1995 and are now in line with the government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which are evidence-based recommendations intended to promote health. (See Trust, Spring 2012.)

There is strong public support for improving the school snack rule—a project survey last year found that 80 percent of the U.S. public backed the idea—but the guidelines had not been revised since the 1970s. Today, nearly 1 in 3 adolescents is overweight or obese, and young people are increasingly suffering from diabetes and high blood pressure.

“A lot has changed since the 1970s,” says Jessica Donze Black, who directs the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project. “Research on what kids need to stay healthy has grown by leaps and bounds, the rate of childhood obesity has tripled, and the environment that students face in schools is dramatically different today. The Agriculture Department’s improved snack food nutrition standards, though, are an important step forward in improving kids’ health.”

The updated standards result from the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which directed the Agriculture Department to develop nutrition standards for all foods sold in U.S. schools. The Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project helped build support for the legislation. The work continues, with the project engaging leading educators, nutrition experts, and key private-sector partners in the development of the rules that put the law into action.

Private-sector supporters include prominent members of the food industry, including snack food producers such as Mars, Inc. “We strongly support a new national school nutrition standard that will ensure children have access to high-quality nutritious snacks at school,” the company says in a statement. “Stronger school nutrition standards are an important element of a broader solution to address the health challenges facing the nation’s youth.”

Cincinnati's public schools are among the first in the country to embrace updated federal snack food standards and serve fresh fruit, trail mix, and low-calorie drinks.

The legislation and resulting rules will accelerate a trend among some school districts that were already trying new and creative ways to serve healthier meals and to engage parents and their kids. One of those is Cincinnati, a national leader in school nutrition efforts and among the first large school districts to offer healthier school lunches.

“We know we have kids going home to empty refrigerators and cabinets,” says Jessica Shelly, the school system’s food services director. “So we take the responsibility for making sure our students have access to healthy, tasty, and nutritious food options throughout the school day very seriously. This includes getting our kids to fill up on fresh fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins rather than high sugar and fat foods when it comes to providing both full meal and snack options.”

Shelly works with community partners—including Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, the Cincinnati Health Department, and the Greater Cincinnati Nutrition Council—to educate parents and the larger community about the importance of healthy eating habits. Her staff also talks with students and parents to determine healthy snack options that kids might want to eat to broaden the appeal of what’s available and provide more choices.

“The key is choice and variety. We’ve found that nothing makes a kid or teenager more defiant than when you say, ‘This is your meal, now eat it,’” Shelly says. “If you just change the food in the vending machines and your students go around the corner to buy high-calorie snacks instead, you haven’t really changed their eating habits, just their shopping patterns.”

Donze Black says that is the challenge. “Simply pitting sugary and high-fat treats against healthy snacks just won’t work,” she says. “Kids like to choose what to eat, but we need to provide them with a range of healthy options so that any choice they make is a nourishing one.”

As the rule takes effect, the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project will continue its efforts to educate the public on the importance of nutritionally sound school meals and to help local school district officials think through ways to bring healthier snack options to students. “There’s going to be trial and error in schools for which these nutrition standards are brand new,” Donze Black says. “It is important to get it right. How do we include the right people in the conversation? How do we choose foods that kids will still eat and enjoy? And ultimately, how do we market it to parents, students, and faculty so participation can be maximized? Fortunately, there are thousands of schools that have already answered these questions and can lead the way forward for thousands more.”

Donze Black stresses the importance of school food administrators building partnerships with other community stakeholders as Cincinnati has done so successfully. This cooperation includes actively working with leaders in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors to tackle the challenge of improving food options in local schools.

“I see our efforts in the food services department as the rock that’s thrown into the pond,” says Shelly. “Changing snack options makes an impact in my schools, which ripple out to the homes, which spread out to the larger community, which then ripple out to the region as a whole. I’m hoping our overall school lunch and nutrition improvements efforts are contagious. It’s about a lifestyle change, teaching our kids healthier eating habits that will last a lifetime.”

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