School district getting healthier snacks, challenge is for students to eat them

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ST. GEORGE — Washington County School District is working to modify its wellness policy in order to meet the standards of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Act of 2010.

Stock photo | Photo by Unsplash, St. George News

This act, signed into law by former President Barack Obama on December 13, 2010, was part of then-first lady Michelle Obama’s initiative to combat childhood obesity and presented a set of nutritional standards and funding in order to reform school lunch and breakfast programs across the United States. Part of these guidelines has to do with what snacks can be sold on school property, referred to as smart snacks, as well as how these foods are marketed.

Smart snacks was one of the major reasons for needing to update the district policy, Karen Bess, director of student services, said during a board meeting on Tuesday.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture guide to smart snacks, dietary specifications and criteria are in place to reduce the risk of chronic illnesses in children. Some of the criteria for smart snacks include that they must be 200 calories or less and contain no more than 200 mg of sodium and cannot contain trans fat.

Bess said they initially thought some of the strict guidelines regarding sugar, sodium and whole grains would be relaxed with the administration of President Donald Trump. But much of Trump’s effort, as recently as April, has been met with resistance. The stated reasons for the rollbacks were to reduce food waste and simplify guidelines.

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Yet other than a few slight changes, such as lessening the whole grain percentage requirement and allowing schools to serve chocolate milk, there has yet to be any significant change, which has created further need to update the policy.

“There’s no latitude in the law,” Bess said. “It says they must meet the smart snacks rule.”

All fundraisers on school campuses also have to comply with these rules with the exception of three fundraisers per school year.

Bess told St. George News that in 2015, the district gradually rolled out some measures by encouraging schools to increase the amounts of healthy items offered in school stores and vending machines, but schools quickly came to find that students weren’t buying the items.

“Those were the items that at the end of the month, or the end of the expiration date, they had to throw them away,” Bess said. “So it got pretty concerning that it was a costly endeavor – buying these foods and then just having them go to waste.”

In other words, for the district the greatest challenge hasn’t been in the availability of these smart snacks, but rather with students not purchasing or eating these items and having to throw them away.

Schools do have the option of writing stricter guidelines in their wellness policies should they choose, but the federal standards are noted as minimum requirements in order to be eligible for federal funding.

“We’re not just saying, ‘Oh you may be able to do this or maybe not.’ The goal is that it will meet that standard,” Bess said.

Stock photo | Photo by Unsplash, St. George News

Combined with nutritional education and smart snack options, the hope is that when students are presented with a healthy snack option, they’ll choose it.

Some of the items that are considered smart snacks would be things like choice meat sticks, cheese sticks, granola bars, pretzels and whole fruits that meet the specific criteria. Caffeinated beverages are not allowed in elementary or middle schools. Some caffeinated beverages are allowed in high schools as long as they have low or no calories.

Once school gets back to normalcy, she said they will probably send out a survey to each school to find out what percentage of smart snacks are in stores, vending machines and sold a la carte “and just shoot for improvement.”

For the district, the goal in moving forward is to continue to increase the amounts of smart snacks and decrease items that do not meet the criteria. Bess said she is thinking they can reach an 80/20 ratio, meaning that 80% of items are smart snacks and 20% are not and gage from there.

The USDA nutritional standards for all foods and beverages sold during the school day is unarguably a healthy requirement and very well intended, Bess said.

“Our biggest hurdle will not be the availability of smart snacks, but rather students actually purchasing and/or eating them. If only foods and beverages that meet the nutritional criteria are available, the hope is that those healthier foods and beverages will be consumed.”

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