Bye bye candy bar and hello apple: New federal nutrition standards for schools took effect July 1, removing foods and drinks that are high in fat, sugar and sodium from a la carte cafeteria snacks and vending machines.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's "Smart snacks in schools" program is part of the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Jodi Levine, associate professor of dietetic technology and a member of the Faculty Association of Suffolk Community College noted that one-third of children under 18 are overweight or obese.
Since 2005, NYSUT has offered "24/7 Let's Go!" a program developed by the union's Health Care Professionals Council to encourage children to increase their physical activity and to avoid junk food in favor of fruits and vegetables.
Under the new federal guidelines, school vending machines must be emptied of products such as sugar-laced sports drinks, fruit snacks and candy-coated granola bars by July. "It's fantastic," Levine said. Portions will be smaller, combating the super-size mentality of the fast food industry where extra big drinks are the equivalent of six soda servings.
Snacks must have more fiber, nutrients and protein. Plain water is now acceptable: It used to be exempt because it has no nutritional value, but it hydrates students, has no calories and replenishes fluids.
Meals should consist of five components: grains, meat/meat alternatives, fruit, vegetable and milk; students must choose three of the five. School districts are compelled to track compliance and food service workers have to be educated.
Protests and pushbacks against the law, primarily from the food industry, persist. At press time, Congress was negotiating a one-year waiver for schools facing financial difficulties. Opponents say students will not buy healthy snacks and schools will lose revenue.
"When you introduce a child to something new to their palette, it takes time," said Bernard Washington, a school cook and member of the Syracuse Teachers Association, where he is president of the food service unit.
Syracuse already offers students healthy choices in the vending machines. "They're eating it!" he said.
On a daily basis, Washington and his crew cook for 3,600 of the district's more than 20,000 students; they make their own pizza sauce, mayonnaise and salad dressing and use whole wheat pizza shells.
"I take great pride in what I do," said Washington, a School-Related Professional who has worked in food service for 30 years. "The fast food industry entices young children. We need to show them there are healthier foods that lead to weight loss and healthy body structure."
"It's retraining," said Julie Holbrook, Keene school food service director and a food consultant for Schroon Lake school. "We have (students) for two meals a day, and we have an impact on their learning and their bodies."
At this Adirondack school, almost all food is made from scratch, which saves money and allows for the purchase of local, grass-fed beef.
Holbrook, who serves as co-president of the Keene Support Staff Association, worries the new mandate doesn't go far enough: processed food served or sold by many schools still contains a lot of chemicals. She advises reliance on nuts and dried fruit and low-fat cheeses, otherwise the new mandate limits a lot of good fat that students need.
Holbrook and her team of cooks plan to make and package their own healthy snacks that can be sold at a better price point for students.
Districts can mitigate a potential loss of revenue by limiting the number of places in school where food is available, said United University Professions member Leah Holbrook, clinical instructor of family medicine at Stony Brook Health Sciences Center (no relation to Julie Holbrook).
If students can buy doughnuts and candy bars at fundraisers in the hall, they will be less apt to purchase healthy food.
The new mandate allows for fundraising events and birthday parties to continue, but nutrition experts say those should be looked at, too. Levine suggests one celebration to recognize all students with a birthday that month. Serving small-sized cupcakes can teach children about portion size; or use nonfood gifts.
"I'm in favor of keeping the standards and expanding them," said Stony Brook's Holbrook. "We've created these habits for children, and they are suffering with increased rates of obesity, impacts on mobility, self-esteem, academic performance and physical health."
Under new USDA guidelines, snack items cannot exceed:
• 200 calories
• 230 mg. of sodium
• 35 percent of calories from fat
Drinks (8 oz. max for elementary, 12 oz. max for middle and high school) can be:
• plain or carbonated water
• unflavored low-fat or fat-free milk or milk alternatives
• 100% fruit or vegetable juice
For more info, visit www.fns.usda.gov/sites/default/files/allfoods_flyer.pdf.