Schools say bye to Twinkies, hi to locally-grown kale?

by Melissa Jeltsen on July 30, 2010

school lunchThe new regulations for public schools prohibit fryolators in the preparation of competitive foods. This line, from Massachusetts’ new school nutrition bill, is enough to make nutrition activists jump with joy. Fried foods will be just one of the unhealthy items stricken from Mass. schools after Governor Deval Patrick signs the bill today (full text of the bill here).

“This bill is certainly not a panacea for the childhood obesity epidemic, but it is an important step in creating healthier environments for children,” says Lisa Mannix, manager of State Government Relations at Children’s Hospital Boston, who points out that, on average, children consume two-thirds of their total daily calories while at school. Mannix, along with a number of Children’s clinicians and child health advocates, played crucial roles in advocating for and shaping the legislation.

While this bill regulates “competitive foods”—items in vending machines and al la carte items—it does not regulate food sold as part of the School Lunch Program, which falls under federal jurisdiction.

The bill directs the Department of Public Health (DPH) to establish nutritional standards for snacks and beverages sold in vending machines, school stores and cafeteria ala carte lines—items which are currently unregulated and are typically fat- and sugar-laden. Food and drinks that don’t meet the new standards will get the boot. “Schools could decide to remove vending machines entirely, or they could replace junk items with granola bars and other things that are healthier,” says Mannix. “For some schools, this is going to be a big change.”

Schools will also be required to offer fresh fruit and non-fried vegetables at any location where food is sold (not including vending machines). “This is a huge victory but it’s the tip of the iceberg in some ways,” says Elsie Taveras, MD, MPH, pediatrician at Children’s. While this bill regulates “competitive foods”—items in vending machines and al la carte items—it does not regulate food sold as part of the School Lunch Program, which falls under federal jurisdiction.

nutrition2As well as go healthy, the bill requires Massachusetts’ schools to “go local.” Schools are strongly encouraged to pursue contracts with local farmers, whenever possible. The bill also eliminates barriers so it’s simpler for schools to purchase directly from smaller-scale farmers.

The bill also suggests school nurses have access to increased development and training on childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes. “The hope is that nurses could improve screening for these condition and referral students to the appropriate resources,” says Taveras.

While the rate of obesity may well be leveling off for the nation’s children, it’s an epidemic with widespread health and economic implications. “One in four teens in Massachusetts is overweight or obese,” says Taveras. “We know that obesity increases a child’s risk for developing a host of chronic illnesses, including heart disease and stroke. We need to do what we can to increase access to healthy foods and get rid of the junk.”

1 comment

  • Anonymous

    It is hard for me to believe that children get 2/3 of their daily calories from food at school. Having said that, clearly it is important to have healthier options at the school cafeteria. I don’t have direct experience about the quality of food in our schools – because our twins are only 4 – but from what I have read and heard, this is a big issue everywhere. There is indeed a need for change.

    Regulating competitive foods at schools is only part of the solution. It perturbs the economics of school food options, but does little to affect long term decision making by kids. Regulations target supply and availability, but do nothing to change demand. That is one reason why I am not a big fan of these regulations – I think they will simply create more bureaucracy without making a big change in our eating habits in the long run. It amazes me to see so much focus by the pundits on regulations to solve our food and obesity challenges!

    Why not do something fundamentally different to change demand? Why should the food companies be the only ones worried about demand? As soon as a child is born, the parents should be given tools and information to learn about nutrition and healthy eating habits. It is not rocket science and most parents would do their best to give their child a healthy start in life. Samples of formula and diapers go only so far in raising a healthy child!

    By no means, I claim to have the answers to this challenging problem. All I know is that without changing demand in a fundamental way, it is not possible to have the change we desire in our eating habits.

    Regulating school food options is like trying to build a dam on a mighty river. The water will find a way around!

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