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From the Kitchen to the Congress: A Child Nutrition Reauthorization Blog

Food Fight - Why We Need National Nutrition Standards

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The community of Peabody, Mass. is currently embroiled in a controversy that’s pitting the school nutrition program and school administrators against students and parents. 

After a review by the Massachusetts Department of Education, the city’s high school was found to be in violation of the district school wellness policy.  The violation? Holding a monthly ice cream social fundraiser during lunch.  According to the district’s local school wellness policy, foods sold in schools must “include healthy choices and age appropriate selections for food and beverages sold at fundraisers…”  The policy further noted that in the middle and high schools, fundraisers “will be monitored by food service personnel to assure compliance with current USDA guidelines.”

After being cited by the state, school administrators decided to ban the long popular fundraisers, calling on students and advisors to find new alternatives.  The result was a public uproar. Peabody, a quiet, historic community north of Boston was thrust into the national spotlight.  Student leaders appeared before the district’s school committee (school board), frustrated and angry with the ban.  The fundraiser provided support for student activities such as the National Honor Society and the school newspaper.  Without the money raised by the socials, these organizations would need to cut some of their activities. 

This story is not unique to Peabody.  Since local school wellness policies were put into place in 2006, both local and national media has been rife with tales of banned treats and cancelled fundraisers. In 2007, the North Cambria School District in Pennsylvania stopped a years-long tradition of distributing special cookies on Groundhog Day.  That decision was overturned after the cookie maker, a school board member, argued for an exception. An honors student in New Haven, Conn. was expelled for selling contraband items – candy and soda.  The school district eventually reversed the decision, but not before the community went into an uproar. Even the son of a high ranking SNA leader has been caught during school hours selling forbidden snacks out of his truck, much to his mother’s dismay!

Incidents such as these highlight the need for national nutrition standards and regulations for foods sold outside of the school nutrition programs.  It isn’t so much about the parties or the fundraisers themselves – school nutrition professionals are not the food police.  Rather, it’s about the messages we’re sending students.

The federal school nutrition programs provide meals that are based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and meet strict nutrition standards.  When schools allow competitive foods, or items provided through vending machines or fundraisers, to be sold during lunchtime, it does a huge disservice to the school nutrition program.  Students will opt to avoid the healthy, nutritious, and balanced reimbursable meal offerings.  Instead, they will choose the less nutritious foods.

School nutrition professionals are well aware what happens when the nutritionally balanced school lunch available in the cafeteria competes with vended items, hallway fundraisers and in-classroom candy sales. Research has confirmed the impact as well. A study by researchers at the University of Minnesota published in the 2005 Archives of Pediatric Medicine found a positive association between body mass index in young adolescents and schoolwide food practices such as foods used in school fundraising and in the classroom as incentives and rewards. The more opportunities for students to purchase food at schools, the higher students’ Body Mass Index is. 

A way to address the food and beverage smorgasbord on campus and to prevent local controversies is to take the local variation out of the equation and create national, consistent standards for competitive foods.  The federal government spends about $15 billion per years currently on child nutrition programs – that should give them the right to set standards for what food and drink can be sold or served during the school day. SNA supports the creation of a consistent, national nutrition standard to govern foods sold outside of the reimbursable school meal.  In March, Representative Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) reintroduced legislation (H.R. 1324) that would regulate the sale of foods sold outside of the federal school meal programs.  The Senate version of the legislation should be introduced soon. The issue was also the focus of a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on March 31, 2009.

By setting nutrition standards, we send our children a clear message regarding health and wellness.  Failing to enact standards denigrates the efforts made by school nutrition professionals to model healthy behavior and provide nutritious, high quality meals. Competitive foods are a distraction. A teacher wouldn’t teach a math class with Saturday morning cartoons playing on the TV. If the cafeteria is truly a classroom, shouldn’t we only provide nutritionally substantive foods?