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It’s time for healthier snacks and beverages in our schools

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The proposed national guidelines for school snacks call for minimum standards for schools to make sure that all kids have access to healthy options.

As a parent, I tried to teach my kids to make healthy choices. As a state representative, I understand that policy plays a crucial role in ensuring children have healthy choices at school. That’s why the updated nutrition standards for school snacks, proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), are so important. They call for healthier competitive foods — the snacks and drinks schools offer outside of meal programs.

norton portrait
Kim Norton

Despite years of concerned discussion, our kids are literally surrounded by junk food and sugary drinks at school. That’s because schools continue to sell them in vending machines and stores — even in à la carte lines in the cafeteria during lunch. This means many students can buy unhealthy snacks and beverages like cookies, ice cream, pizza, sugary drinks and fries instead of a more nutritious lunch.

A recent report estimates that students consume 400 billion calories worth of junk food in U.S. schools every year. Because many kids consume up to half of their overall daily calories at school and because obesity among children and youth is at crisis levels, this estimate is a sure sign that we need to move from discussion to action.

Experts across the country warn that if we don’t reverse the obesity epidemic, this generation of young people may be the first in our history to live sicker and die younger than the last generation — a real change from what we are used to expecting. More than 23 million of our children and adolescents are at high risk for serious health problems because of their weight.

Nearly 1 in 4 overweight

In Minnesota, almost one in four of our children and adolescents are overweight or obese. Research shows children who are obese are more likely to be obese as adults, and if current trends continue, more than 54 percent of Minnesotans could be obese by 2030. Over the next 20 years, obesity could contribute to over 600,000 new cases of type 2 diabetes, 1.3 million new cases of coronary heart disease and stroke and over 194,000 new cases of cancer in Minnesota. 

This doesn’t have to be the case. Public awareness and personal action are great starters, but we’re taking steps in Minnesota to ensure a better future.

In 2009, I helped create the Minnesota Childhood Obesity Legislative Working Group, a bipartisan, bicameral group of legislators, which examines the latest research on obesity in Minnesota. The group has supported local and state programs like physical education standards, complete streets legislation, Farm-to-School and Safe Routes to School programs, and increasing access to healthy foods and opportunities for physical activity in day-care centers.

We also strongly support good prevention and education policies like the Statewide Health Improvement Program (SHIP), and are working in partnership with the University of Minnesota on a project to improve the utilization of public health research in the legislative process.

No policy guidelines

But Minnesota still has a long way to go. We have no existing state policy guidelines for vending machines, student stores and á la carte items. Having strong national guidelines would be a major first step in the right direction.

The proposed national guidelines for school snacks call for minimum standards for schools to make sure that all kids have access to healthy options. These standards will help close loopholes that might keep unhealthy items in schools and help ensure that vulnerable populations have equal access to healthy foods.

USDA’s proposed standards also are wisely designed to let local school districts adapt them to fit their particular needs. Specific decisions, including what’s on the menu, which recipes are used, and how they are presented, will still be decided at the local level. As long as they meet the basic guidelines, schools districts will still have the flexibility to create successful snack program that works for their kids.

The newly proposed USDA guidelines are good for our children and our schools. As parents and policymakers, we must place a high priority on supporting and improving the policies that keep our kids healthy. Everyone in Minnesota can voice their support for strong USDA guidelines by sending in this form. I’m proud of the work Minnesota has done to provide healthier options to our students, but it’s important for USDA to issue a strong final rule.

Kim Norton represents district 25B in the Minnesota House of Representatives, and serves as vice-chair of the Health and Human Services Finance Committee. She is working with Women in Government and Leadership for Healthy Communities to help prevent childhood obesity by increasing opportunities for physical activity and access to healthy, affordable foods. 

WANT TO ADD YOUR VOICE?

If you're interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below, or consider writing a Community Voices commentary. For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at salbright@minnpost.com.

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Comments (7)

Authority

By what authority does our government concern itself with the dietary practices of its citizens?

in public schools....

In the public schools I would think they would have a lot (if not complete) authority to determine what is sold and/or offered.

Nothing New Here

For decades, the federal government has told us what to eat. They have subsidized wheat, corn, soy beans and dairy products. Fruits and vegtables have not been pushed on us this way.

Subsidizing some foods is no different than taxing others. But you won't hear that from the corporate media, the subsidies are to lucrative for big agri-business. It's welfare for Con Agra.

Authority

By the authority that they pay for and run the schools, including the food that's served in them.

Healthier snacks and beverages in our schools

Rep. Kim Norton is 100% correct in supporting policy to ensure nutrition standards for school vending machines, a la carte lines and cafeterial options. Without policy change does not happen. As tax payers and parents it is our responsiblity to ensure that kids grow up healthy. A child's health is more important than a school making money from selling junk food. If we don't support healthy food in schools, we will all pay the price in health care costs.

What about the underweight kids!!!!

I have seen so much about taking out sugary and high calorie foods out of our schools. Taking these items away can also damage some of the children. I understand that there is probably more children who are obese then underweight, but why do we always focus on the obesity of our children. I have two daughters that are school agers and are underweight. Neither one of them like the fact that they have to drink skim milk or low fat milk. As a parent and tax payer as well as most of you on here I worry about my kids weight but in my case it is the other way around.
Parents need to take responsibility for what their children consume while at school and at home. When I was in school we had vending machines, a la carte, and high calorie foods and I can say that my mom obviously did a good job at teaching me what I could eat to stay healthy.
So my thought is to turn this around and see where these underweight children are, as well as the many teens out there who are so worried about their weight that it leading to anorexia or bulimia and again no body seems to address these two issues either.

Food is fuel. It shouldn't be some kind of emotional crutch.

It would appear that once again people are turning their stern, judgmental faces toward schools and pointing their assured fingers at the source of the problem... But are the schools to blame? That's a genuine question because I don't know the answer.

It's my understanding that waaaayyy back, schools didn't provide food for the students at all. You either walked home for lunch or you brought the lunch your parents made for you. Then the school hot lunch programs started but I can't tell you if the motivation was selfless (getting kids to eat) or selfish (making money). I DO remember that the kids in my day groused about the lunches that were offered but we ate it because it was the only thing available.

Then it seems to me the '80s came along and guilt-ridden parents started obsessing about giving their kids what would make them happy or what would make up for the time the parents spent away from home (or whatever) and the focus started to switch to what Scooter LIKED as opposed to what was nutritious for him. (They also started the trend of infantilizing food instead of getting kids used to eating what everyone else at the table ate.) In fairness, it's possible that's the same time schools learned they could make a few bucks if they installed vending machines.

I still think it's sad that an institution created educate future adults needs to spend so much time playing healthy restaurant and dietitian. I suspect the schools will be cursed if they do and cursed if they don't. As the post previous to this one shows, everyone is so thoroughly entrenched their own specific needs and priorities, they won't be satisfied with ANYTHING the schools try to do.

If schools are trying to make a buck off serving food to kids, I hope they take responsibility to use good nutritional sense. Likewise, I hope parents stop acting like it's the obligation of the school to feed their kids.... and BOTH would to well go back to the mindset that kids don't have to have a million food "choices" just to get through their day.

Food is fuel. It shouldn't be some kind of emotional crutch,(or money maker).