Implementing Local Wellness Policies: Winning Students Over


Implementing Local Wellness Policies: Winning Students Over

January 24, 2007 -- As school districts nationwide implement local wellness policies this school year, they face several challenges as well as opportunities. One hurdle for school nutrition professionals is ensuring student acceptance new food and beverage options. Many new items are now being offered as part of school meals as well as through vending machines and a la carte lines in response to state and local nutrition standards.

Some districts that have gradually made a la carte and vending changes over the past few years have found that while student acceptance of new choices was initially mixed, students embraced new options over time. Student acceptance has been reported with offerings such as fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grain pretzel and trail mix snacks, yogurt, fat free milk and bagels with light cream cheese. Eventually sales have picked up for these districts and revenues have returned to the levels prior to implementation of new nutrition standards. According to “Making It Happen – School Nutrition Success Stories,” published in 2005 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, students will buy and consume healthful foods and beverages and schools can make money from selling healthful options. Of the 17 schools and school districts reporting income data for the publication, 12 experienced increased revenue as a result of the changes and four reported no change.

Creativity is a common denominator in encouraging student participation in school meals programs and acceptance of new items. Sometimes, according to a report in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, that means making nutritious snacks more accessible to students. In Jordan Elementary School in Jordan, Minnesota, Principal DeCorsey’s solution is a healthful-treat cart. Each morning it’s pushed through Jordan’s halls, and students come out of class to pick their snack.

Students help stock the cart with school-bought items including bananas and pears, raisins, sunflower seeds and graham crackers. The cost is prepaid - $35 per kid per year – by parents or sponsors so no one is left out. DeCorsey said she’s excited that her fourth-grade son, “who wouldn’t eat healthy at home,” has developed a liking for the pears.

The Jordan Elementary effort is not alone in incorporating students into the decision-making process. The 2006 School Nutrition Association Operations survey found that 90% of districts surveyed use student taste testing to determine what foods and beverages are offered as part of lunch or as a la carte and vending choices. A recent article in the Appleton Post Crescent suggests tapping students’ ideas for healthier eating, “The nutrition policy (banning candy and soda sales during school day) sparked some discontent — high school students think they should be able to make their own choices — but that might be an opportunity to enlist kids’ help in planning.”

According to the Huron Daily Tribune in Michigan, school lunch menu planning for Bad Axe Public Schools includes checking available foods, getting input from the school nutrition staff and primarily soliciting student feedback. Says school nutrition director Ken Guza, “ I listen to the kids…we are here to feed the children. These meals might be the only ones they get. I don’t want to take the chance that a kid is going to go home hungry.” The article goes on to clarify, “Of course, he looks at the nutritional value of what he and the foodservice staff serve, as it is a government requirement. He follows a chart that gives information on how much protein, grains, vegetables and fruits and dairy children in various age groups need in a given meal.” He often tries out new menu ideas on high school students.

In one high school in an eastern Kentucky district, students complained last fall that new, healthful school lunch offerings did not taste good. The Appalachian News Express quoted one freshman student, “When they made the food healthier, they made it worse…the food was good last year.” New lunch offerings for this school year limited calories, fat, sugar and sodium in foods served to students, however variety in meals offered and student input were maintained, and according to the principal and school nutrition staff, lunch participation has increased over the prior year.

Elsewhere, however, lack of student excitement about meals can have a negative impact on participation. In one northeastern North Carolina community, the local paper reports “the school district is losing money after switching to more healthy meals at all of its schools. “ The district faces an almost $60,000 shortfall due to a drop in participation, however students are slowly becoming accustomed to the healthy food and some sales have picked up, according to the school nutrition director. Part of the changes to lunch offerings for the district included no longer frying foods and offering a minimum of one serving of whole grains daily. Reimbursable meals cannot contain more than 200 mg of cholesterol, all milk choices will contain 1 percent or less fat, legumes must be offered at least once a week and only baking, roasting, broiling, boiling or steaming may be used to prepare meals. The district already serves four servings of fruits and vegetables each day, which is also required under their local school wellness policy nutrition standards. District staff is finding that nutrition education in the classroom and cafeteria is critical to helping students understand the new food and beverage offerings.

In central Kansas, the McPherson Sentinel reported on the challenges encountered in McPherson Unified School District 418 in following the nutrition guidelines outlined in the district’s new school wellness policy. According to Bill Froese, school nutrition director, “we have tried a plethora of snack choices within the guidelines of no more than 200 calories and five grams of fat.” Some items were sold below cost to make them more attractive to students.

The Sentinel reports, “some items are good sellers at first, but then students no longer buy them…one such item was a drinkable yogurt.” Froese continued, “time will help us, the manufacturers and vendors have to adjust to what we want…but some items are more expensive, so we take less of a percentage.” The decrease in a la carte snack sales has resulted in an increase in reimbursable lunches sold at the middle and high school level. Foods made with whole wheat have been popular with students, and Froese continues to seek new healthful products as the district’s wellness policy nutrition guidelines are phased in.

Below are several tips from school nutrition directors to help ‘win’ over students to new school food and beverage options:

  1. Solicit meaningful student feedback and act on their recommendations and dislikes
  2. Be creative in marketing new lunch choices.
  3. Offer new choices several times before giving up on them.
  4. Incorporate nutrition education into the classroom and cafeteria when possible.
  5. Ask other school nutrition directors what dishes worked in their school district.
  6. Gradually phase in new foods over a period of time.

Implementing change takes time and students are notorious for being adverse to change. Don’t give up on the first try. Successful behavior modification usually occurs with small incremental steps. By gradually offering new foods and introducing creative ideas in the lunchroom, a ‘win-win’ situation is possible for all.

Note: The above is the first of a series of monthly web articles featuring the challenges and opportunities associated with implementing local school wellness policies.



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