Increasing the availability of whole grains is the effort most commonly reported by schools for improving children's nutrition, according to a new survey.
Released yesterday by the non-profit group School Nutrition Association (SNA), the new report also finds that more schools are now offering a greater amount of fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as a wider selection of healthy beverages.
The group released its 2007 Trends Report yesterday to coincide with the US Department of Agriculture's (USDA) National School Lunch Week, which was established over 40 years ago to raise awareness and support for the role played by schools in American children's nutrition.
The report, which is released annually, is based on a survey of 200 school districts nationwide. According to SNA, this year's findings provide evidence of the "continuing efforts" underway in the nation's schools to promote healthy eating habits.
Some 81 percent of school districts said they have increased the availability of healthier beverages in vending machines, while 74 percent reported reducing or limiting trans fat content in foods. Limiting overall fat content of a la carte or vending items was reported by 73 percent, and increasing the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables was a priority for 63 percent.
SNA said policy deployment is increased for nearly every area from past years, including the percentage of districts with a policy that limits the fat content of products rising to 73 percent from 38 percent in 2004.
The report also describes new efforts taken by school nutrition programs for the current school year, including greater availability and variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grain products; a consistent emphasis on wellness as schools move forward with the implementation of their wellness policies; limiting portion/serving sizes; developing and implementing nutrition education programs for students, teachers and staff; and using alternative preparation techniques, such as elimination of deep-frying.
USDA also this week applauded the efforts made to improve school nutrition, with acting agriculture secretary Chuck Conner highlighting the government's Healthier School Challenge.
"Our schools are taking on the Healthier School Challenge, and combined with local wellness policies, have raised students' awareness of healthy nutrition," Conner said.
"Agriculture offers healthy food choices as an important start to the day, while USDA provides nutritious snack, school breakfast and school lunch opportunities for many of these children."
The Healthier School Challenge recognizes elementary schools that voluntarily meet nutrition criteria established by USDA's Food and Nutrition Service, awarding them either Gold, Silver, or Bronze status.
USDA also implemented wellness policies in July last year as a way to improve nutrition and help combat child obesity. Every school that participates in the school lunch or school breakfast program- the large majority of US schools- was required to establish a local wellness policy.
These require 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 federally regulated and can 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.