Fifteen schools in South Kitsap and Bremerton school districts have earned recognition for their participation in the Healthier US Schools Challenge, a voluntary program hosted by the USDA’s National School Lunch Program. This means these schools go above and beyond basic USDA requirements for student nutrition.
All but Bremerton’s West Hills STEM Academy (pre-K through 7th grade) are elementary schools. In Bremerton School District the remaining schools, including Mountain View Middle School and Bremerton High School, will apply to become Healthier US participants.
I bring this up because in middle and high schools there tends to be greater access to foods outside of those served in school cafeterias. I’m talking here about vending machines, student stores, fundraisers and other sources of what the USDA calls “competitive foods,” as in competing with regular meals and potentially with the “healthier” options served under USDA guidelines.
In South Kitsap, however, Ariane Shanley, director of South Kitsap’s food and nutrition services, is holding off on signing up the district’s three junior highs and high school for the Healthier US challenge, pending changes in federal rules on school nutrition.
The federal Healthy Hunger-free Kids Act, mandates standards for competitive foods and includes a provision that gives the Secretary of Agriculture authority to set guidelines on their availability and consumption. Will soda be allowed in vending machines? Will school stores be allowed to sell candy? Will pizza sale fundraisers become a thing of the past?
The USDA is taking comments until April from interested parties, and Shanley is one of them. Although meals at South Kitsap’s junior highs and high school already meet the higher criteria of the Healthier US challenge, she is advising principals at the school to wait until the dust has settled on competitive food guidelines. Shanley is concerned that imposing even well meaning guidelines on competitive foods could have unintended consequences.
“The conversation is bigger than child nutrition,” Shanley said. “We want to very cautious that we are not impacting other programs in a negative manner.”
Shanley takes a “holistic” approach to student nutrition. In reality, there’s only so much federal funding can do to influence individual eating behavior, she said. Schools can control what goes on in their cafeterias, and they can encourage students to bring home healthy eating habits through nutritional education. But ultimately, what happens the lunch line stays in the lunch line. Other “environments” outside the direct influence of schools include the home and social events.
“We’re only impacting our environment (schools) at this point,” Shanley said. “I know parents do the best they can, and every family has their own choices they make, and they should. … You can’t legislate the home environment, nor should we.”
That said Shanley, has done considerable research on trends, including the increased rates of obesity, heart problems and diabetes in the U.S. population, and what she’s learned worries her.
“I’m personally concerned that our next generation has a shorter life expectancy than you or I,” she said. “You cannot legislate a person. You would hope that people would take it on themselves to do one or two things a day to improve their health.”