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Sensible Snacking

Making it a part of your school nutrition program

A District Administration web seminar digest

School administrators across the country are working hard to offer healthy and attractive choices in snacks and beverages. Still, concerns persist about meeting nutrition guidelines, getting community support, winning student acceptance and maintaining revenue. Our speakers, Kate Lampel Link and Christy Manso, both from the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, provide valuable insight for addressing such concerns in this edited digest of our web seminar.

The goal is to create an environment where healthy eating and physical activity is the norm in schools, not the exception.

After his bypass surgery President Clinton wanted the William J. Clinton Foundation to address heart health related issues. Who better to partner with than the American Heart Association? Together they turned their attention to the epidemic of childhood obesity. This joint venture established the Alliance for a Healthier Generation in May 2005. The goal is to halt the trend of childhood obesity by the year 2010 and reverse that trend by 2015. While the Alliance promotes both healthy eating and physical activity, on a large scale one of our focuses has been on snacks and beverages found in the school setting.

Competitive foods are foods and beverages sold in competition with the federally funded school breakfast, lunch and after-school snack programs. The federally reimbursed programs adhere to USDA nutrition standards. Competitive foods are not regulated. They tend to be high in calories, sugar and fat. Recent studies have found a high prevalence of competitive foods on school campuses.

Students eat between 35 to 50 percent of their calories in the school setting. Research indicates that children will eat healthier foods and beverages. We continually hear that they want to eat healthier. So students will eat healthier foods, especially if they’re introduced to them in a way that’s not just imposed upon them.

In October 2006, several leading manufacturers in the Snack Food Association joined with the Alliance to establish and help schools implement guidelines for competitive foods. The original signatory companies were Campbell’s, PepsiCo, Dannon, Kraft, and Mars, with their Generation Max line. These companies demonstrate a commitment to working with the Alliance to encourage education leaders in schools to adopt these guidelines, and they agreed to offer only products to schools that comply with these guidelines.

Let’s look at the competitive food guidelines. If you think of general nutrition advice, you are familiar with recommendations to decrease fat, calories, sodium and sugar, while increasing intake of vitamins, minerals, fiber and appropriate amounts of protein.

That’s exactly what the competitive food guidelines of the Alliance recommends for snack products sold in schools. We say 35-10-35, and that means we limit snacks to 35 percent of calories in total fat, 10 percent of calories in saturated fat and 35 percent of sugar by weight. We allow for zero grams of trans fat and no more than 230 milligrams of sodium, and we like to see a cap of 100 calories.

Overall, the goal of the Alliance Healthy Schools Program is to create a shift in which healthy eating and physical activity is the norm in schools, not the exception. So healthier products in the vending machines will be ubiquitous and active staff and students will be visible in all places in the school.

It’s important to implement good marketing packages around pricing and promotion for new, healthier products.

The Alliance offers several valuable tools for schools. Our product navigator is an online catalog of compliant products from participating companies. You can use it to create a shopping list of foods that meet our guidelines. We also offer a nutrition calculator for those products that you think might meet our guidelines but you don’t see in the navigator. Both tools are on our website at

In moving to healthier competitive foods and beverages, the first step is to adopt guidelines across all venues. For example, there could be a vending machine outside the principal’s office, outside the gym; maybe there’s the school store down the hall. All of these are separate venues generally coordinated and managed by different administrators. It’s important to adopt the guidelines across the school building or even across your district so students aren’t going from one venue to another to get non-compliant, high-fat products.

Step two is to inventory all of those venues that sell competitive foods and beverages. You want to determine who is responsible for each and who gets the funding from each of those places. Then you need to meet with all the staff members who are responsible for each venue and plan how to make changes to ensure compliance with the guidelines, so you’re changing all your venues at once.

You may have to amend contracts, particularly beverage contracts, so it’s a good idea to get your school or business offi cer engaged if that is the case. You should also consult with students and faculty representatives early and often. Students like to be involved, and they really don’t like changes that they see just being imposed on them. We developed a student activism kit called Steps for a Healthier School, which takes students step by step through the process of making the changes in their school. There is some adult supervision but it’s really student led.

We recognize that you have a lot of guidelines you likely have to follow. Maybe you have state regulations around nutrition; maybe you have some local regulations. Maybe you even have school or district regs. You’re wondering what to follow. Our guidelines are not intended to undermine more restrictive guidelines. If your existing laws and regulations are less restrictive, following the Alliance guidelines removes the guesswork. We offer science-based, age-appropriate guidelines that will provide lower calorie, nutritious snacks and beverages to students and reinforce the value of calorie and portion control.

We’ve gotten the argument that the Alliance guidelines don’t allow for freedom of choice, but we think they do. It’s a matter of adjusting the environment to help students choose differently, to help students choose from healthier options. It’s important to implement good marketing packages around pricing and promotion for new, healthier products.

One of the ways you can get student acceptance to happen more quickly is through meaningful student involvement. As we defi ne it, it’s student-initiated, shared decision-making with adults. It’s mobilizing change at the grassroots level because we know that that leads to a sustainable solution. Students tend to resist changes they view as being imposed on them by school administrators.