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

Proposed national guidelines will help close loopholes that might keep unhealthy items in schools and help ensure that vulnerable populations have equal access to healthy foods.

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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.

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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. 

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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. 

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