Price, taste remain challenges for healthy foods in schools

By Lorraine Heller

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Nutrition

Less than half of school districts that pledged to provide healthy
food and beverages for sale in schools have managed to implement
the policies, due in large to the high costs of healthy products,
and to students being reluctant to accept these, says a new report
by the School Nutrition Association (SNA).

Published this week to mark the first-year anniversary of wellness policies in schools, the report tracks their implementation progress, including the establishment of nutrition guidelines for products sold in schools. Local wellness policies, required in every school that participates in the school lunch or school breakfast program- the large majority of US schools- were designed to address the problem of childhood obesity. They require that schools set nutrition standards for all foods sold in school, including in vending machines, a la carte lines, and school stores. These policies have had a significant impact on the nutritional standards of foods served in the National School Lunch Program, with 72 percent of the schools reporting that these standards have already been implemented. However, results from a survey of 976 school nutrition directors indicate that implementation has been more of a challenge for policies that address foods and beverages offered outside of the school nutrition program, said SNA. These include food available through school stores and fundraisers, food rewards given by teachers and food served at classroom party celebrations. Fewer than half of all districts that included these policy components have finished implementing them, according to the new report, From Cupcakes to Carrots: Local Wellness Policies One Year Later."Finding affordable products that meet policy nutrition standards, acceptance by students and monitoring/oversight of the policy were the biggest implementation challenges cited,"​ said SNA. Although limited budgets necessarily place certain limits on the types of foods that can be sold in schools, these findings resonate back to the wider issue of whether consumers can afford the higher prices charged by manufacturers for reformulated, fortified, or premium healthy options. The nutritional profile of foods and beverages sold in schools has been in the spotlight for several years, following increasing concern about the nation's raising childhood obesity rates. In April this year, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) issued a new report that could lead to a major overhaul of the types of competitive foods allowed in schools - or foods available outside of the federal school meal programs. According to the report, which was met with a flood of approval from nutrition associations and consumer groups, including SNA, the American Society for Nutrition (ASN), and the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), these products should be consistent with the nation's 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) if they are to be allowed at all. Part of a study commissioned by Congress, the report recommends that if competitive foods are available in schools, these should consist of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nonfat or low-fat milk and dairy products. Despite the challenges faced in the implementation of healthier nutrition guidelines in schools, SNA's latest report reveals that progress is being made. More than 83 percent of survey respondents noted increased healthful food options in the cafeteria as a result of policy implementation and almost half indicated resulting changes in the healthy choices or behavior of students. School nutrition programs are now offering such a la carte and school lunch items as whole-wheat, reduced-fat cheese pizza; a variety of fruits and vegetables including jicama salad and kiwi; hummus and pita bread; fat free flavored milk; and low-fat yogurt, said the report. An earlier survey released by SNA in August also found that in addition to following federal dietary guidelines, more than 87 percent of school districts have nutrition requirements for the foods and beverages sold by school foodservice, up 30 percent from 2005. Three out of five school districts also have nutrition restrictions for foods and beverages sold by groups outside the cafeteria such as PTA's, athletic departments and student governments, a four-fold increase from two years ago.

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