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Improving Nutrition in Schools

School health experts discuss how districts can better serve the needs of their students.

After the reauthorization of the federal Child Nutrition Act in 2004, K12 school districts with federally funded meal programs were required to enact wellness policies by the first day of the 2006-2007 school year. District Administration recently convened a Web seminar, "Improving Nutrition and Wellness in Schools" to assess the state of, and to promote, quality school wellness programs.

The four panelists were Brenda Z. Greene, director of the National School Boards Association's School Health Programs; Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest; David Behlow, superintendent of Oswego (Ill.) Community Unit School District; and Kenneth M. Arndt, superintendent of Community Unit School District 300 in Carpentersville, Ill.

The panelists discussed how school districts can improve food service programs and encourage students to make healthy choices. Following are excerpts of their comments. The full seminar is archived at


Director, NSBA School Health Programs

We know that school nutrition and wellness is an important issue to school board members. In a survey of our members last summer, 94 percent said school nutrition is important and 83 percent said schools should limit low-nutrition foods. But only 27 percent said the federal government should play the lead role in setting policies in this area. The majority said the proper federal role should be one of guidance and that policies should be set locally.

I think we can all agree on the broad goals. We need to reduce childhood obesity and thereby prevent the kinds of chronic diseases, such as diabetes, that result from being overweight. And we need to do this by working to establish healthy school nutrition and physical activity environments.

We believe strongly that process is as important as product. Developing a local wellness policy, which was mandated by the Child Nutrition Act of 2004, must involve all key stakeholders and should always be based on local needs. It is important to understand that change is a slow process. Each local district should determine its own path. Districts must convene those stakeholders in developing policy, usually in the form of a standing advisory structure.

This is a process, and it must be done through the community. Schools are important players, but change must come through a community-wide effort that involves the media, employers, health services, government agencies and others.


Nutrition Policy Director, Center for Science in the Public Interest

According to a recent national survey, only 2 percent of American children eat what's considered a healthy diet. The rest eat too much fat, salt, sugar, and not enough fruits and vegetables and whole grains. Schools alone can't solve this problem, but many institutions- and especially parents-need to be more involved. Change needs to be phased in; trying to do it all at once is too big an undertaking.

For schools, the first step is addressing meals. Over the past decade, schools have been working hard to improve the nutritional quality of their meals. And they're making good progress. Typical meals now provide adequate levels of protein, vitamins and minerals. They have less fat and sodium and more fruits and vegetables than the average school meal had 10 years ago. But this work needs to continue. The kinds of changes that would help include serving more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and especially 1 percent and fat free milk, since milk is the highest source of saturated fat for children.

While school meals have been improving, a continuing concern should be foods sold outside of school cafeterias. USDA standards for such foods were developed in the 1970s and are out of sync with current nutritional thinking. They just don't make sense. For instance, ice cream bars can be sold but not popsicles, and certain candy bars are in but not seltzer, which is considered a junk food.

Many districts worry that if they curtail the sale of snack foods and sweetened beverages they'll lose an important source of revenue. But there are misconceptions about exactly how much money is being raised through sales of low nutrition foods. There is evidence that money spent on these foods is simply shifted from other food service accounts. In other words, kids come to school with lunch money and either spend it in the cafeteria on a balanced meal or they spend it in the vending machines. Switching to healthier options doesn't necessarily lead to lost revenue if it is done correctly.


Superintendent, Oswego (Ill.) Community Unit School District

We started our journey towards a healthier environment by taking a hard look at all the data on trends in diet and obesity, and we saw an alarming increase in unhealthy eating and inactivity that was linked to obesity and chronic disease. As a district that is committed to putting children first, we realized we had to make changes.

First, we addressed the nutritional value of our meals. We decreased fat and sugar. We increased nutrient density through additional fruits and vegetables. We moderated portion size. In beverages, we moved to 1 percent and 2 percent milk, nonflavored water or 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice.

Next, we changed the pricing structure to encourage the purchase of complete Type A meals versus a la carte purchases, which we found tend not to be as healthy or nutritious. We reduced the price of a Type A meal, which might be a deli sandwich, fruit, vegetable and milk, to $2.05, while we increased the price of an a la carte sandwich to $2.15. As a result, Type A meals increased by 21 percent and purchases of a la carte meals decreased by 11.5 percent.

We took other important steps as well. We gave our parents Web access to their children's lunch accounts so they could monitor and restrict their children's purchases. We increased parent communication about wellness and nutrition through our Web site and newsletter. On the activity side, we restructured physical education so it's no longer only about throwing a ball. We now integrate it with our health program and focus on cardiovascular health, muscle tone, flexibility and lifetime fitness. Students are graded on improvement, not performance.

Regarding fundraising, we came to the realization after a lot of struggle that if we're putting children first, and if the data tell us what we're serving is not healthy for students, then we need to change what we offer them, even if it could mean a loss in revenue. So we've put healthy and nutritious foods and drinks in the vending machines, and we're hopeful that the students will continue to use them.


Superintendent, Community Unit School District 300, Carpentersville, Ill.

At some point a district's leadership is going to have to ask some difficult questions about its food service program. Are students purchasing school lunch items as opposed to bringing foods from home? Is the program operating within the budget? Are staff members and parents satisfied? And perhaps most tellingly, how much time is spent handling complaints and concerns? The honest answers may lead you to consider the merits of an outsourcing option.

Of course, it's best to try to address the problems internally first. But I have been totally sold on the benefits of outsourcing food service operations. You improve flexibility and efficiency, and you get to work with specialized experts. You gain economies of scale. And it allows you to focus more exclusively on your core business- education.

Before moving to an outsourced solution, it is important to cover all your bases. You have to get buy-in from all the stakeholders. Do your research. Conduct site visits. Consider board politics and the role of organized labor. Be sure to follow state labor laws. Have your communication plan ready.

J.D. Solomon is District Administration Web seminar editor. DA Web Seminars keep you informed about important issues in K12 education. Visit us at