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School lunches not making the grade

Published on: September 01, 2006

Although many Puget Sound-area school districts have stepped up efforts to improve nutritional offerings for tweens and teens in the lunchroom, a new report indicates Washington state is still not making the grade.

The non-profit Center for Science in the Public Interest has Washington tied for last place with 23 other states. The report gave the state an "F" for failing to go beyond U.S. Department of Agriculture standards developed more than 30 years ago.

Although the news is disheartening, Shelley Curtis, nutritional outreach and food policy manager for the Washington state-based Children's Alliance, notes the report is mainly based on state legislation, not on what school districts are actually doing.

Because the state Legislature simply established recommended guidelines for public schools to follow and allows each individual district to practice autonomy and develop its own nutritional policies, the report gave the state failing marks. As a result, Curtis says, the playing field is not level around the state. "Some school districts have made sweeping changes in their policies, but others are really not measuring up," she says.

Most Puget Sound school districts have taken nationwide nutrition trends to heart and have adopted stringent policies to affect change in the eating habits of students. Seattle Public Schools, for example, have gained national attention for pioneering efforts that go well beyond the cafeteria.

Seattle spokeswoman Patti Spencer says that junk food and sugar-laden beverages have been banned in the district. In addition, programs like "You're the Cook" shows middle school students how to prepare healthy foods with cooking demonstrations and a culminating assignment where students must take what they learned how and prepare a healthy meal for family members.

In Thurston County, the North Thurston Public Schools Healthy Youth Task Force launched a comprehensive study of school food offerings in recent years and implemented a policy during the past year. By involving middle and high school students in focus groups, surveys and classroom presentations, the goal was to design a comprehensive nutrition program that would get the thumbs-up from students, but please parents and educators as well.

North Thurston parent Kendra Dahlen helped start the task force because she worried that school food offerings were not giving her son Kyle Murphy, now 16, proper nutrition for the many sports programs he participated in.

"My son and his friends were eating pizza and French fries every day because they did not like the other options or it took too long to get through the lunch line to get a better meal," Dahlen says. "Then they would tell me that they felt sick after lunch -- imagine that?"

According to Dahlen, the middle and high school lunches didn't always look very appealing. At times, baked pretzels served as the main entrée in the cafeteria and cinnamon rolls were served alongside French fries. Based on student recommendations, the district implemented new menus that now include yogurt parfaits, fresh sandwiches, fresh salad and pasta bars, fresh fruit and vegetables, fruit smoothies and additional entrée choices.

To cut down on wait times in the lunch line, which often seemed to dissuade students from eating school lunches, the district implemented Grab and Go lines with pre-made salads, sandwiches and fruit.

"Participation in our district's food service has increased, and feedback from students and parents has been great," Dahlen says.

The Olympia School District offers another example of the power of parental involvement. After parents and students there begged for changes in the nutrition program, the district ultimately ended up adopting a menu chalk-full of organic fruits and vegetables.

Curtis of the Children's Alliance says there is no shortage of innovation in the state school district lunchrooms. Finding those districts that have failed to implement better nutrition programs and helping them get on board with national trends is the first step in improving school nutrition statewide.

Donna Johnson, a University of Washington associate professor in the School of Public Health, is using a grant to study nutrition policies at 64 school districts across the state. The research will include a three-year, phased study of policy, policy implementation and dietary assessments. In this particular project, she will focus on middle schools in the districts that ultimately end up in the study. Recruitment of participating schools will begin this fall.

During the study, Johnson hopes to determine whether the lunch programs are making an impact and truly affecting change in student diets, or if the students go home and eat junk food and drink three or four sodas.

"This is a chance for districts to evaluate the impact of their own policies, which is a good thing," Johnson says. "But the fact remains that everybody needs to be on board for these policies to be successful, including parents, schools and the greater community."

Johnson questions whether it would be more appropriate to have the lawmakers craft significant legislation regarding school nutrition policies or allow school districts to develop their own guidelines. "I think schools are more likely to get better results when parents and community members are more active in sculpting policies. People need to buy into these ideas for them to be sustainable," she says. "I don't know if we'd see the same reaction if it was just another law that was passed."

Dahlen agrees -- to a point. While the state legislation passed requiring districts to adopt nutrition policy was mediocre, Dahlen says, nutrition policies in her district have improved ten-fold since the law was passed. In her mind, the real culprit is the food vendors.

"In my view, the beverage and snack industry deserves the 'F.' They have been very slow to develop and provide healthier and appealing products for our kids," she says. "Our students told us in every focus group that they wanted high-quality snacks in the vending machines so that they could get something nutritious to eat to sustain them during after-school activities. Potato chips or Fritos are not acceptable options. The relationship between the vendors and the school districts could be much more creative in providing and promoting healthy options."

Schools find ways to make money minus junk food

Much of the fear surrounding adoption of stringent school policies governing junk food was the loss of revenue for Associated Student Body (ASB) organizations that survive on funding from soda and snack food sales.

In the Sumner School District, students have found innovative ways to continue to fund ASB programs. At Bonney Lake High School, the student store sells school spirit gear, school supplies and gift items. The store was also awarded a contract to sell I-pods and I-Tunes, as well as computers, to students.

The store opened in early January and while it remains unclear what the total monetary impact will be, spokeswoman Ann Cook says it has been well-received by students, parents and staff.

At West Seattle High School, DECA students' creative thinking seems to be paying off. Soda is off the menu and students can sip on smoothies made at the student store instead. Seattle Public Schools spokeswoman Patti Spencer says the store seems to be quite popular among the teens.

In the Edmonds School District, an innovative effort at Edmonds-Woodway High School has also resulted in rising profit margins. The Snack Shack removed the candy and other sugar-laden treats and has turned to healthier options, such as bagel sandwiches and salads. The store has a little wiggle room and can still sell soda and chips, but the store charges more for the junk food than it does for bottled water and baked chips.

Since making the change, the Snack Shack has experienced a 14-percent jump in sales and generates about $700 per hour. School officials are uncertain whether the sales jump is due to increased food cost, or because the students really dig the new offerings.

Another Edmonds District school didn't fare so well. Revenues at Mountlake Terrace High School's store decreased by nearly half since taking the candy off the shelf.

Cook, of the Sumner School District, says there's no magic formula for making the programs work, but she definitely recommends that school officials and parents do a little market research first. Talk to other high schools, conduct focus groups among your students and then establish your strategy for getting students to buy into healthy eating.

Tips for parents and teens:

  • Healthy eating starts at home. Appropriate portion size and a healthy diet are learned behaviors. Be a role model for your student. When you pop through the drive-thru for your morning coffee, ask for non-fat milk and nix the whipped cream.
  • It's OK to eat junk food, on occasion. Designate one night a week as pizza night. You can still eat your favorite foods, but try to manipulate ingredients. In baked goods, use applesauce instead of sugar. Buy lean ground turkey for your famous spaghetti sauce and used baked or grilled chicken in those enchiladas.
  • Involving your children in the cooking process often opens their minds to healthier eating. Have your tweens and teens cut vegetables, set the table and other tasks. Not only will they be more likely to eat what they helped prepare, they may actually talk to you and tell you how their day was.
  • Query your child about what kinds of foods are available at school. To learn more about healthy eating in schools, visit The Center for Health and Health Care in schools online.
  • If your tween or teen is overweight, talk to your doctor about appropriate diet and exercise. For more tips on parenting overweight children, visit the Weight Control Information Network.
  • Get your kids out on the playing field. Whether walking around the neighborhood or joining an athletic team, discover what kinds of exercise stimulate your children and support their endeavors. Think outside the box hiking, biking, rock-climbing, snowboarding and skateboarding give kids a workout, too. Capitalize on their interests.

Sarah Kahne is a freelance journalist and mother of a 5-year-old boy.

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