Monday, July 1, 2013

The School Snack Police Have Arrived, And Not A Moment Too Soon

by Diane Dembicki,
Ph.D., LMT, CYT, Clinical Associate Professor and Director of the M.S. in Nutrition Program, College of Nursing and Public Health

There was a story reported on NPR from the Washington Associated Press on June 27 that for the first time the Agriculture Department is telling schools what kinds of snacks they can sell. This Department sets nutritional standards for schools that receive federal funds for lunches, which is almost every public school and about half of private ones. These rules are based on a law passed by Congress in 2010 called the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act which was put into place last year. The new federal snack rules go into effect next year. But it’s not without its critics, from Congress to the kids it affects.

I would like to address the criticism mentioned in the story. Some say the government should not be telling kids what to eat. They’re not really, because there is still a lot of choice. The “a la carte” lines and any vending machines now have to offer healthier foods. Students can still choose from those offerings or bring food from home, even birthday cupcakes (food allergies being more of a concern here). One high school student commented that they didn’t think anyone would eat the healthier food.  Well, there is a Nutrition scientist up in Cornell, Dr. Brian Wansink, who spends a lot of time studying eating behavior.  He is the past president of the Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior, and not only did I have the pleasure of meeting him at our annual conference, but I also agree with what he has to say. That we can try to educate people about healthy habits, and even though they probably know what they should do, the environment has a big influence on what they actually do. This was the very topic which was discussed in this week’s New York Times Sunday Review:  “Why Healthy Eaters Fall for Fries”(love that creative food photo). By the way, Dr. Wansink was the one that came up with the 100-calorie snack, manipulating the food environment.   I do believe if we offer only healthier snacks, it will be a part of the total picture that adds up to healthier kids.  

A couple of students who were interviewed said they didn’t like the new government ruling because they like the taste of sweet.  No problem there, they can still have sweet tasting fruit, 100% fruit juice, low-calorie sports drinks, and diet sodas.  A director of food services in a school district said the healthier foods are expensive. That may be something the government also needs to address. But I ask, how expensive is obesity? Never mind the comorbidities of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, once considered diseases of adults. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act is supposed to be part of the solution to the childhood obesity epidemic. Just last week, the AMA classified obesity as a disease. Obesity researcher Dr. James Hill at the University of Colorado welcomed the new classification. I worked with Dr. Hill when I was one of the clinical coordinators for the human clinical trials by the FDA on Procter and Gamble’s fake fat Olestra conducted at Colorado State University. People also like the taste of fat.

But tastes, such as liking sweet and liking fat, and the food environment, are just part of nutrition, the other part is physical activity. And that’s a whole other “Think About It “ blog. The federal snack rule can help, along with other things. As Mrs. Obama says, “Let’s Move!” Yes, let’s be active, and let’s also move on doing the things we need to do to have healthy kids.