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School wellness policies improve nutrition, reduce vending

By Lorraine Heller , 28-Aug-2006

The implementation of new nutrition policies throughout the nation's schools this academic year has already resulted in schools undertaking significant efforts to provide children with healthier foods and beverages, according to a new report.

These include changes to school breakfasts and lunches, as well as more nutritious a la carte and vending options, according to the School Nutrition Association's (SNA) 2006 Back to School Trends survey.

The survey, which comes the month after school districts were set to pass local wellness policies, reveals that around 87 percent of districts have passed these, with an additional 9 percent reporting that they are currently in the process of developing school nutrition policies.

Under terms of the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act, by July 1, 2006 every school that participates in the school lunch or school breakfast program- the large majority of US schools- must have had a local wellness policy in place.

The policy, designed to address the problem of childhood obesity, requires that schools set nutrition standards for all foods sold in school, including in vending machines, a la carte lines, and school stores.

Although the wellness policy is not federally regulated and is likely to differ form school to school, it contributes to addressing a loophole that allows the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to set standards for foods sold in the lunchroom, but forbids it from setting standards for foods sold elsewhere on campus.

And according to SNA, the wellness policies are having the desired effect.

Conducted at the association's annual conference in July and released last week, the new report reveals that the most widespread change in schools' practices - implemented in three quarters of school districts- involves increasing the availability of healthier beverages in vending machines.

Other policies in place among a majority of districts include limiting the fat content of a la carte or vending items (implemented in 67 percent of districts), limiting the hours of operation or availability of vending machines (64 percent), and offering vegetarian options (43 percent).

In addition, the percentage of school districts that reported having a policy that removes carbonated beverages from vending machines is up to 38 percent, from 18 percent last year.

Changes to school lunches include increased offerings of fruits, vegetables and whole grain foods, providing more baked foods instead of deep-fried foods, and placing limits on the fat, sugar and caloric content of foods served.

School districts also reported a greater focus on wellness issues, including nutritional information, student education and more 'marketing' of healthier choices.

The survey also revealed that participation in school lunch and breakfast programs increased in about 63 percent of districts, resulting in student spending in vending machines being down from 2005.

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