As the date approaches for US schools to submit nutritional guidelines for food and beverage products sold on campus, a new study reveals that principals and food service directors have different perceptions on food policy.
But what is clear is that schools will be looking to provide more nutritional products as they move away from offering unhealthy snacks.
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 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 will not be federally regulated and is likely to differ form school to school, it will contribute 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 in general, there are few school nutrition policies related to 'competitive foods'- or snack and soda products sold in schools, says a new study, published in this month's Journal of the American Dietetic Association.
The researchers, who examined the implementation of existing policies, revealed that school principals may believe children are eating better than they actually are. For example, they found that more principals than foodservice directors reported the existence of enforced nutritional policies.
"A troubling finding in our research is the number of respondents, most often school foodservice directors, stating 'policy exists but is not always enforced," say the authors. They suggest this finding means that competitive foods may be directly competing with school meals, even in schools with policies aimed at discouraging this practice, because of week enforcement.
Another area where the key stakeholders addressing new wellness policy development do not see eye to eye is the nutritional standards already set for a la carte foods.
"Almost 40 percent of principals reported that this policy is enforced, compared with only 15 percent of school foodservice directors. Since foodservice directors likely have authority for a la carte foods, the finding suggests misconceptions by principals," said the researchers, who based their study on responses to surveys sent out to almost 300 public high schools in Pennsylvania.
"Hopefully, the implementation of wellness policies will result in more participation in the school meals program, which does have nutritional standards," said Elaine McDonnell, project coordinator who led the study.
And once the wellness policies are in place, as from the 2006-2007 school year, food service directors will be "relying on an industry response to provide more healthful options that will be acceptable to children and will not be cost prohibitive," McDonnell told FoodNavigator-USA.com.
Indeed, other moves are also being made to get unhealthy products out of schools.
A new lawsuit aimed at removing soft drinks from schools is now ready to go, according to Professor Richard Daynard, a lawyer who has already taken on the tobacco firms, and who spent much of 2005 gathering evidence and witnesses to launch this new court battle.
And Senator Tom Harkin recently called for a radical overhaul of USDA food standards in order to drag them into line with current thinking on obesity and nutrition.
"We need a more active federal government in setting guidance for public schools," he had said in September at the Healthy Schools Summit 2005 in Washington D.C. The summit, which was attended by government, business and non-profit groups, involved two days of discussion on how to improve the health of children.
"Currently, under 30 year-old USDA standards, it's just fine for schools to sell ice cream, Oreos, Snickers candy bars, donuts, and all kinds of other junk foods. Obviously, it's time to update USDA standards based on all that we have learned about nutrition and obesity over the last three decades," he added.