States With Tough School-Nutrition Laws Show Slimmer Kids
August 13, 2012

States With Tough School-Nutrition Laws Show Slimmer Kids

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

The war on childhood obesity has just received a big helping hand. New federal nutrition standards are going into effect this year at schools all across the country curbing sales of junk foods and sugary drinks in an effort to help keep America´s children slim and trim.

The new regulations require all schools to meet strict standards in order to get federal meal reimbursements. Many schools are overhauling their lunch menu programs in accordance with the new standards, but some have already made significant improvements over the past few years.

In adding support to the federal standards, a recent national study looked at how regulation of foods and beverages sold outside federal meal programs at schools may have helped curb childhood obesity.

The study found that fifth graders in states with strong “competitive food laws” gained less weight than did kids in states with no such legislation.

Study author Daniel R. Taber, of the University of Illinois at Chicago, said there is strong evidence that such laws can have a positive impact. “But we need to recognize that it is not going to influence all students.”

Childhood obesity has ballooned over the past 20-30 years, with more than a third of US children now either overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The US Department of Agriculture´s Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 is one of a number of programs geared toward curbing obesity by providing healthier school foods. Another recent study has shown that only half as many students as in 2006 can still buy sugary sodas in school.

However, noted Taber, there has been little evidence showing that such programs actually work.

So, in the new study, published in the journal Pediatrics, Taber and colleagues tapped into an earlier study following 6,300 students in 40 states from 2003 to 2006, focusing on fifth-to-eighth graders. Researchers compared children´s body mass index (BMI) with competitive food laws in each state.

The researchers found that students whose states had consistent, strong laws throughout the study period gained 0.44 BMI points less than children whose states did not regulate foods sold at schools.

Taber said it is difficult to translate that into pounds, because children are continually growing as they age. But he and his team also found that states with strong laws in 2003 saw five percent fewer overweight students and eight percent fewer obese students than in states without strong food laws.

The researchers used a scoring system provided by the National Cancer Institute to classify laws as strong or weak. A strong law is one that is mandatory and contains specific rules, such as how much fat and sugar may be in food.

To be as effective as possible, Taber said the rules should be consistent throughout high school, have strong language and be as specific as possible. “The key is really in the details,” he told Frederik Joelving at Reuters Health.

“This is the first real evidence that the laws are likely to have an impact,” Dr. Virginia Stallings, director of the nutrition center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, told the Associated Press.

Stallings chaired an Institute of Medicine panel that urged standards for making snack foods and drinks sold in schools more healthful but was not involved in the new research.

In 2003, when the study began, 27 of the 40 states had no relevant nutrition laws, seven had weak laws, and six had strong laws. During the course of the study, several schools had enacted tougher laws affecting middle-school children and younger kids.

In states that have consistently strong laws in elementary and middle school, nearly 39 percent of fifth-graders were overweight when the study began. That dropped to 34 percent in eighth grade. About 21 percent of fifth-graders were obese, declining to about 18 percent in eighth grade.

Boston University statistician Mark Glickman said the study design makes it difficult to reach a clear conclusion. He said it is possible that stronger laws may be more prevalent in Democratic-leaning states with better-educated residents, and less obesity. But the study authors said they found stronger laws in states with higher levels of obesity.

The authors also took into consideration gender, race, income and school location.

Southern states have been the most aggressive in targeting junk food in schools, “probably because they have the highest rates of obesity,” said Taber.

Sandra Ford, president of the School Nutrition Association and food service director at Manatee County School District in Bradenton, Florida, said a key element to the success of the changes in school lunch programs is the way food is marketed and sold to students.

Much of the acceptance depends on what is offered. Students should be offered a variety of choices, such as grapes, peaches, pears, applesauce, etc. “We are focused on providing students with a lot of choices,” she said.

The biggest challenge, she added, is getting them to take a half cup of fruit or a half cup of vegetable at lunch.

Schools with competitive food lunch programs are now scrambling to create new recipes and order foods that meet new guidelines while operating on tight budgets. In many districts, schools are offering taste tests so they know what kids like and will eat, so they don´t have kids just tossing their food out when they get it.

The School Nutrition Association conducted a recent survey of 579 school food service directors and found that 95 percent said they encourage students to try new food items, often by taste testing.

Taste tests help determine what will sell and what will be a bust, said Marilyn Moody, senior director of Child Nutrition Services in the Wake County, NC Public School System. Foods that flopped: collard greens, pinto beans, vegetarian pizza and blood oranges.

Moody noted that foods that fared well included yogurt parfaits with granola and pluots (of the plum family).

She said students know they are being pushed to eat healthier and, surprisingly, many will ask if its healthy. “They want to be perceived as eating healthy choices. They know that is the right thing to do,” she added.

It is difficult creating 750- to 850-calorie menus for high school students because there are now maximum limits on the amount of proteins and grains that can be served each week. So cafeteria staff workers are loading lunch trays with fruits and veggies.

She said the staff has to meet a range of needs – kids who are overweight or obese and “those who are food insecure because they don't know where their evening meals will come from. They need the calories.”

Jon Dickl, director of nutrition for Knox County Schools in Knoxville, agrees it´s tough finding the right meal for students. “Our students are so savvy we have got to produce products they like“¦ The high school students are definitely the most savvy. They will vote with their dollars”

“Elementary schools have the highest levels of participation in the lunch program. In middle school, they can be a little more finicky,” he told Nanci Hellmich at USA Today.

Older students expect sophisticated menu choices similar to what they are used to ordering at restaurants, Dickl said “That's why we do a lot of things that mimic what they find in restaurants.”

To throw students off, cafeteria workers will often sneak in healthier ingredients. He explained that the school´s pizza is made with sweet potato puree blended into the tomato sauce, a whole grain crust, and low fat mozzarella cheese.

Olivia Fomby, 14, a high school sophomore in Dickl's Knoxville district, said the key to getting kids to eat school lunch is to make sure it looks and tastes “fresh, not like they just put it in the microwave and heated it up for five minutes.”

Dickl told Hellmich that improvements will continue. “I don't think we are ever going to get to the place where we'll say we are done.”