Monday, October 29, 2012

Food fight

Given a choice between a bag of potato chips and an apple, which snack would most kids buy?

More and more research is supporting the move to not only improve school lunches but also those “competitive foods” sold on school grounds, such as vending machine snacks and beverages. Presenters during today’s session on “Regulating Competitive Foods in Schools: From Assessment to Policy” encouraged the public health community to help make the case for why such efforts are needed.

“Changes are being made to school lunches,” said Maureen Spill of the Kids’ Safe & Healthful Foods Project. “These need to be supported by changes to the snack food environment.”

A study to be released by the project later this week — Hurricane Sandy permitting — found states are varying widely in the types of snacks they offer to students. None of them are doing a great job, Spill said, with the majority of students living in states where less-healthy snack foods, such as chips, sweetened baked goods and candy, are available.

Yet a health impact assessment that measured how snack food regulations would affect health as well as a school’s financial bottom line found the rules didn’t hurt revenue and improved kids’ health. That assessment also found vulnerable populations  — such as low-income and minority students — benefited the most from stronger school-based nutrition standards.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is set to release nutritional guidelines on competitive foods sold in schools sometime in the coming year. As public health advocates comment on those guidelines and raise support through advocacy, they should bear in mind five key messages, said Matt Kagan, who conducted research for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and California Endowment:

•    Healthier foods mean healthier kids. “This is our best argument” for national regulations on foods sold at school, Kagan said.

•    Schools can do it. Despite budget cuts, many school districts already have implemented healthy changes in the cafeteria. “These are standards that can reasonably be met,” he said about recommended rules on snack foods and beverages. "We’re not asking them to do the impossible.”

•    Academic success. Studies have linked good nutrition to school performance.

•    Choices/flexibility. Even with proposed national rules, schools have the flexibility to apply those rules in ways that makes sense for individual communities.

•    Childhood obesity. Many are concerned with the fact that one in three schoolchildren is overweight or obese, and nutrition standards are a strong tool in reversing that trend.

Kagan also said we in public health should work to bring students’ voices to the forefront. A recent survey of California schoolchildren found they liked the new lunches that met updated nutrition standards and would support snack food guidelines aimed at improving healthy food and beverage choices on school grounds.

“They do not want to go backwards, and that’s the message all of us need to get out there,” he said.

— D.C.

Above graphic courtesy Kids’ Safe & Healthful Foods Project

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