Feature                                                 Pages 36-43


Competitive Foods in Schools  

In pursuit of healthier students, what can districts do about snacks and beverages that underlie school fundraisers? 


Elementary school students move past the fruit and vegetable bar, peering at the strange foods, pondering which ones to taste. There are 26 choices, one for each letter of the alphabet.

Twice a year at the Balsz Elementary School District’s Health and Wellness Fair, students taste radishes, blueberries and zucchini for the first time. And they’re being introduced to fun facts about unusual foods such as jicama, kiwi, quince and ugli fruit, all in an effort to encourage students in the Phoenix, Ariz., district to make healthier choices when they eat.

Candy, cookies, sports drinks and sodas are the food staples students expect to find available at their schools. But so-called “competitive foods” — the snacks and beverages sold in vending machines, school stores and snack bars and as a la carte items in cafeterias — soon will be subject to new federal nutrition standards. As part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently released the final nutritional standards governing the availability of competitive foods in schools.

The new rules are expected to take effect at the beginning of the 2014-15 school year, giving school districts one year to prepare. According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, fewer than 5 percent of districts currently follow policies on the nutritional value of competitive foods and drinks. 


Superintendent Jeff Smith (right) of Balsz Elementary School District 31 in Phoenix, Ariz., is working with AASA on a comprehensive district policy governing snack foods and beverages on school property.

A few school districts already have moved toward healthier options, both in their regular breakfast and lunch offerings, as well as in competitive foods. In part to deal with the obesity epidemic, these schools have eliminated vending machines completely or stocked them only with healthy snacks and limited beverage options to water, 100 percent fruit juice and low-fat milk. School stores in some districts no longer sell unhealthy foods, while their food service operations carefully monitor calories, sugar, sodium and fat content in the foods offered to students and reduce portion size. Salad bars are popular additions to cafeterias, while in-school fundraising events and school parties sometimes include restrictions.

AASA is one of several associations working with school districts in this effort. The Alliance for a Healthier Generation, which started in 2006 with 231 schools, now works with 16,000 to negotiate with food manufacturers to offer healthy snacks and beverages. The alliance also provides specific healthy food guidelines. The School Nutrition Association offers training and resources, especially when new federal regulations are adopted. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has taken a stand on competitive foods and beverages, pushing for healthy granola bars, trail mixes and fruit cups in vending machines, while standing against high-calorie, sugar drinks and sports beverages.

The phrase “competitive foods” relates to snack foods and drinks that are sold in schools outside of the national school lunch and breakfast programs. The reason they are called competitive foods is because they compete with the school meals program, where foods must meet particular nutritional requirements.

Generational Poverty
School districts have taken various measures to introduce healthier foods, some writing new policies, others using gentle persuasion. Often theses approaches have far-reaching effects.

Jeffrey Smith, superintendent of the Balsz schools, puts student wellness on the same level of importance as academics. “If kids are healthy, they will learn more and will be more successful,” says Smith. He has tried to change people’s viewpoints about healthy living in his high-poverty, rural district of five schools as a way to “change generational poverty.” 

Students at De Diego Elementary Community Academy in Chicago enjoy the fare of restaurant professionals at a Chefs Move to School program, part of First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! initiative.

Although the district has a basic written policy regarding competitive foods, the superintendent is working with AASA and the Arizona School Boards Association to develop a more comprehensive approach that will govern all aspects of snack foods and beverages on school grounds. Ultimately, he believes, this could be a model for the state and beyond.

In his daily work, Smith uses persuasion and collaboration to change individual behavior. “People don’t do it because it’s coerced, but because they feel it’s the right thing to do. I don’t want to have a written policy just so I can nail people if they’re doing something wrong,” he says.

Smith focuses on in-school food choices. Most Balsz schools are devoid of vending machines, except for staff lounges and those that sell bottled water. He seeks alternative ways to support athletic teams and other organizations that have been dependent on profits from sales in these machines.

When the superintendent noticed the student council at one school selling Popsicles after lunch, rather than unilaterally ban the practice outright, he spoke with the officers about other ways to accomplish their goals. Now students solicit sponsors for an exercise program, with the proceeds going to the council.

Smith also reaches out to the community to change unhealthy habits. He’s started school/community gardens, arranged for food distribution four times a year at selected school sites in cooperation with the local food bank, educated parents at weekly talks and invited representatives from the local dairy council to speak to school audiences.

Balsz was recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s HealthierUS School Challenge in 2012 for excellence in nutrition and physical activity.

One of the recognized schools, Griffith Elementary, has changed school practices to promote healthier eating and increased activity — breakfast in the classroom, a Food Day Fair for families and community members, and a weekly Zumba class for staff and families.

“At Griffith, better health and wellness support for our students, staff and community means better learning and behavior at school and better community relations,” Principal Alexis Wilson says.

“This is a powerful way to change people’s lives, but it’s often overlooked in the busy life of a leader who has so many pressing needs every day,” Smith adds. “But it is potentially life changing for these kids, who may live longer and be more successful. Embrace it and you can see powerful results.”

Fueling Up
In Cabell County, W.Va., the high-poverty, rural/suburban district based in Huntington, with 28 schools, has been moving in the direction of healthier foods for several years. But it had a long way to go. In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention named Huntington the unhealthiest city in the nation. Since then, the county and the state have enacted policies to restrict unhealthy competitive foods in public schools.

The school district introduced a program to encourage more physical activity by students. Several elementary schools participate in a walking program with the local hospital that includes health screenings and prizes. At Enslow Middle School, the West Virginia studies class “walked across the state,” adapting lessons to the sites and history of the counties they traveled through. Enslow also sponsored a “biggest loser” contest among staff members over personal weight loss.

“Over 50 percent of the calories that students consume are done so during the school day,” says Lisa Riley, Enslow’s assistant principal. “That is why it is so important we do our best to manage these calories and make sure that we offer the most nutritious options possible.”

Enslow students may purchase healthy products from vending machines directly before and after school, not during lunch. The school made the changes gradually, moving from french fries to baked fries and finally to sweet potato fries. The school offers taste tests of foods such as vegetarian chili or smoothies with spinach and other vegetables.

One popular addition at the district is the Fuel Up to Play 60 competition, sponsored by the National Dairy Council and the National Football League, to promote in-school nutrition and physical activity. “The idea is to fuel up with healthy foods so you can play for 60 minutes,” Riley says.

Through the introduction of taste tests and a school walking club, Enslow earned more points in the Fuel Up Competition than any other school in the nation in 2011, receiving a $40,000 grant that was used to renovate the cafeteria and buy a $20,000 exercise system. The school has since added an indoor fitness trail and hired an after-school fitness coordinator.

Tony Swan, principal of Fairview Elementary School in Klamath Falls, Ore., donned a chicken suit to perform the "chicken dance" at his school's fund-raising walkathons.

Walking In, Candy Out
When Tony Swan became the principal at Fairview Elementary School in Klamath Falls, Ore., seven years ago, he found the school was selling chocolate bars and beef jerky sticks to raise money during the school day. He soon ended that practice, which he admits made club sponsors and booster groups nervous: “How were they going to raise money for the various activities they support?”

In reality, according to the National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity, schools do not lose revenue if they switch to selling healthier food. Initial revenue declines may occur, but sales rebound and total revenue increases at most schools because monies from the sale of regular meals increases. Also, most school districts typically keep only 33 percent of the funds collected from vending machines.

In the case of Fairview Elementary, Swan worked with the clubs on more acceptable alternatives. He suggested a walkathon, with students getting flat-rate pledges of $10 or more from family and friends. Now, once a year, all Fairview children walk around the high school track for 1½ hours to loud music and prize announcements. Parents and community organizations urge them on. Families join the walk, some pushing strollers.

To create even more of an incentive, Swan recently agreed to wear a chicken costume and do the “chicken dance” if students raised more than $4,000. When they generated $5,000, Swan donned a rented costume and gamely performed the routine while circling the track.

Another elementary school sponsors a similar walkathon, and Swan expects additional schools to join in the coming year. The district is on board with these activities, as well as ensuring its competitive-foods policy meets strict dietary guidelines and nutrition- and fat-content analyses.

Food Ambassadors
School districts’ food service departments sometimes come up with creative ways of including students in decisions about food offerings. Roger Kipp, who manages food serv-ices in the Norwood, Ohio, School District, established a student culinary council of 20 high school students, culled from leaders in their peer groups.

“They help us make decisions and changes as well as helping to educate and influence their fellow students,” he says.

Kipp brings in vendors so students can taste the food and offer their opinions about what they like or dislike. The director admits there’s no use in offering foods students don’t like and won’t purchase.

During the culinary council’s meetings, which first ran weekly and now take place monthly, there’s an educational component in which council members learn about nutrition, portion control, calories and other aspects of healthy eating. Whenever something new is to be introduced in the cafeteria, Kipp admits he’ll proceed in an understated manner, something he calls a “soft” change. The students on the council will spread the word and explain why the shift is being made — for example, when spring rolls were about to replace french fries on the lunch menu. The students also pass out samples of healthy foods and encourage their friends to give it a try. They are the healthy-food ambassadors.

Stricter Policy
Larger school districts, such as the Chicago Public Schools, have a challenge in changing attitudes and behavior across hundreds of schools. In November 2012, the district adopted a strict competitive-foods policy for its 630 schools. District leaders solicited input widely, talking with parents, principals, students and community representatives, and delved into health guidelines, medical research and other appropriate resources. They were determined to improve their policy regardless of the new USDA guidelines.

Chicago’s policy details what competitive foods can be sold. In vending machines, that means bottled water, 100 percent juice drinks and milk in containers of less than 8 ounces, are allowed. All carbonated beverages are banned. Vending machines, which are permitted in middle schools and high schools, contain snack foods that cannot exceed guidelines regarding fat, sodium and calories. School stores are prohibited from selling any food products during the school day, and a la carte options have been dropped from the cafeteria menu.

In 2012-13, 25 elementary schools piloted the new guidelines. Leslie Fowler, executive director of nutritional services in Chicago, insisted the healthier options worked. The pushback surprisingly came not from students but from some principals, who were leery about enforcing the new “cupcake policy,” which allowed only two schoolwide celebrations a year involving snack foods. Even those educators now are on board, Fowler says, and the food services personnel, when asked, will attend parties and plan activities around healthy options.


AASA Builds Relations on Competative Foods

Trimming Bellies and Costs: In-House Cafeteria Options

Avenues for Introducing Healthy Foods

Additional Resources

A Healthier Future

The federal government’s new competitive-foods guidelines, by all accounts, will be comprehensive and deal with the significant problems in children’s diets today. According to Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the guidelines are “in desperate need of an update.”

She points out that improving the nutritional quality of a la carte foods also helps erase the stigma for low-income children who get free lunches and their wealthier schoolmates who are buying a la carte foods.

Sandra Ford, president of the School Nutrition Association, whose organization represents school districts’ food service operations, believes offering healthy choices for students is the right thing to do, even though they can cause a drop in sales. In its response to the proposed USDA regulations, SNA has asked that the same rules regarding the nutritional standards of foods served in school breakfast and lunch apply to foods sold outside these programs.

“They should not impose a different set of guidelines,” says Ford, who works as director of food and nutrition at Manatee County School District in Bradenton, Fla. For example, different definitions exist for fruits, vegetables and grain foods. The food service association wants both flexibility in what is served to students as a la carte items and accountability included in the policy. Once the new regulations are put into practice, the association will help its members adjust, Ford says.

Parents also are campaigning for healthier foods in schools. Ginny Ehrlich, former chief executive officer of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, says, “Parents do not have control of what their children eat while in school, so they want to be assured they are consuming healthy foods.”

The elimination of sports drinks from school vending machines may generate the most controversy. “They are pure sugar and don’t belong in the school,” Wootan says. “But lots of kids and adults don’t realize this and think they are needed for physical activities. Not so. Water is adequate for hydration during the school day.”

According to Ehrlich, studies show that students who eat breakfast at school perform better on tests and have fewer behavior problems. Those who perform better on state fitness tests also tend to get higher scores on state math and reading tests.

“We’re seeing a culture change,” she says, “where less-healthy options are being replaced with healthy foods and beverages. Everyone is buying into it.”

Marian Kisch is a freelance writer in Chevy Chase, Md. E-mail: mariankisch@verizon.net


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