Food. It fuels our bodies – and our minds. It’s critical for healthy growth and development. It connects us – people, cultures, families, students. Today we have more choices, more access and more customization in our food supply than ever before. But food is also complex. Over-consumption or an unbalanced mix of nutrients can have long-lasting health implications. Malnutrition can lead to poor academic performance as well as physical implications. And special dietary considerations have changed the way we look at school lunches and snacks – whether they are coming from home or from the cafeteria.

Many children consume more than half of their meals at school, making good nutrition in school more important than ever. Every student has the potential to do his or her best at school, but poor nutrition puts them at increased risk of not meeting their full potential.

The Foundation: Macro Nutrient Consumption

Balanced dietary consumption of fats, carbohydrates, and proteins is the foundation for a healthful diet. But the types, amounts and quality of those nutrients are also important factors. While in the past a large focus was placed on fats overall as an unhealthy part of the diet, it is now recognized that fats are, in fact, an essential component of a healthy diet because fats are a critical component of many body processes, including brain function. Today, larger emphasis is placed on the type of fat in the diet. Choosing unsaturated fats over saturated ones is important. Further, trans-fats are commonly considered the worst type of fats – with perhaps even more detrimental effects than saturated fat – and should be avoided in the diet. Proteins are important building blocks for the body and brain and are an often-overlooked component of snacks and meals. Carbohydrates are an essential energy source to fuel the body; they provide energy for most body functions, including those in the brain. But the types of carbohydrates are important to focus on, with complex carbohydrates like those in whole grains, fruits and vegetables providing energy that feeds the body well. Conversely, after consuming a large amount of simple carbohydrates like processed starch and sugar, the initial energy boost quickly turns to a period of lethargy including trouble concentrating, headaches and general decreased energy.

Speaking of sugar, science has shown that eating too much added sugar can have a detrimental effect on health. Generations have known that too much sugar can lead to cavities, but newer research has shed light on the more systemic effects of high sugar intake. In fact, a 2014 study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association showed that those consuming too much added sugar were at significantly higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. Further, epidemiological research has shown a correlation between the intake of high-sugar beverages with an increased risk of diabetes. Sugar itself has no nutritive value, as it contains no essential nutrients. Higher sugar intake leads to more calories which translates to excess pounds and thereby the link to the obesity epidemic in the US. American consumption of sugar has skyrocketed in the past several decades. A study in Obesity Society showed sugar consumption in US adults increased by more than 30% over the past three decades. And the impact of high sugar consumption isn’t just in longer-term heath. As sugar enters the blood stream the body releases insulin to stabilize the sugar level, and as more insulin is release the drowsier a person becomes. Instinctively, a person often then reaches for another high-sugar snack or meal – beginning the cycle all over again. This is an important consideration for students who may suffer academically and behaviorally when dealing with the side effects of the cycle of sugar intake. Research has shown that simply minimizing or eliminating high sugar load items can have profound and immediate results in school. One such study took a look at removing high sugar beverages such as soft drinks in school vending machines and offering other beverages had a positive effect on behavioral outcomes such as tardiness and disciplinary issues.

Childhood Obesity

Overconsumption of calories and decreased physical activity has led to an obesity epidemic in our youth, which has become one of the biggest health-related stories of our time. Childhood obesity is a health crisis that puts children at risk for lifelong challenges with weight management, challenges with self-confidence and emotional struggles as well as an increased risk for cancer heart disease and stroke. What causes childhood obesity? The most common reasons are genetic factors, lack of physical activity, and unhealthy eating patterns, or a combination of these. Today’s “connected” environment lends itself to more activity online then outside. Just 20-30 years ago children were more likely to walk to school, run around at recess and to play outside after school. This coupled with the prevalence of unhealthy foods, more meals eaten away from home, and poor eating habits play a significant role in shaping the habits that can lead to a lifetime of overweight and obesity. Treating and preventing childhood obesity helps to protect the health of children now and in their future.

The good news is that over the past few years, programs and initiatives designed to stem the rising tide of childhood obesity seem to be making an impact. Last year federal health authorities reported a 43% drop in the rate of obesity among children ages 2-5 during the previous decade. Programs like Let’s Move, launched by First Lady Michelle Obama helped to generate tremendous awareness around the issue. It has helped shape programs that today have made a great impact in reversing the dangerous course of childhood obesity.

Special Dietary Considerations

Beyond – and in addition to – the public health crisis of childhood obesity, today more than ever our youth are faced with food challenges that pose acute health risks and that require special consideration at home, in the classroom and in the lunch room.

The incidence of food allergies is on the rise. The percentage of children with food allergies increased by nearly 50% between 1997 and 2001. Today, it is estimated that up to 15 million Americans have food allergies, including one in every 13 children. That’s nearly two in every classroom in the US. And while peanut allergies seem to get the most attention because the allergy response to peanuts tends to be most severe, the top eight food allergies are commonly present in the school cafeteria: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts (cashews, walnuts), fish, shellfish, soy and wheat. Given the common presence of these foods in the school environment, it is critical for schools and other educational institutions to have policies and guidelines to manage the risk of food allergies. Food allergies have far-reaching effects, well beyond the lunchroom for children with allergies, their peers and their families. Communication between all parties is critical, but so-called “allergy tables” can lead to feelings of social isolation for students with allergies while an approach more focused on inclusion may lead to greater risk of allergen exposure. Studies show children with food allergies may even be more likely to be a victim of bullying.

The good news is that the issue of food allergies is one that is now commonly addressed with increased communication between students, families and education institutions. There are increasing numbers of food products that are “school-safe” or “peanut-free” that offer more and more great tasting options at the lunch table. And schools have new options when it comes to foodservice. In 2011, Congress passed the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act to improve food safety in the US. Part of that act resulted in the development of Voluntary Guidelines for Managing Food Allergies in Schools and Early Care and Education Programs by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and The US Department of Health and Human Services in consultation with the US Department of Education. Schools that develop and implement effective plans to manage food allergy risk, help to keep children safe and help them to achieve their full potential.

The School Food Environment

Children are influenced by a myriad of food choices and food environments – home, extra-curricular sports programs, camps and, of course, school. In fact, for some children, more than half of their food intake happens at school. Thus schools can have a tremendous influence of the food choices and eating habits of our future generations.

USDA School Food Program

As noted, many students rely on school breakfast and lunch programs as a significant contributor to their food intake. The Food and Nutrition Service of the US Department of Agriculture administers many programs to help provide healthy food to children, including the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, the Summer Food Service Program, the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, and the Special Milk Program. Through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act championed by the First Lady and signed by President Obama, the USDA has recently made the first major changes in school meals in 15 years. The new guidelines help to ensure the availability of better food and beverage options and help students meet dietary recommendations for fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and non- or low-fat dairy products. Ideally the new standards will help to align school meals with the latest nutrition science as well as real world circumstances and ultimately do what’s right for children’s health in a way that’s achievable in schools. By providing better food for children, schools will help us raise a healthier generation of children.

Competitive Foods

Also as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, the USDA issued standards for snacks and beverages – also referred to as “competitive foods” sold within schools, but outside of the federal reimbursable school meals program. “Junk foods” are no longer a staple, now being replaced with better options as the new standards set limits for calories, salt, sugar, and fat in foods and beverages and promotes snack foods that have whole grains, low fat dairy, fruits, vegetables or protein foods as their main ingredients. Prior to this revision, the previous standards had not been updated in 30 years and did not follow the thinking of current science on intake of certain nutrients like trans fat, sugar, and salt and also didn’t take into account key public health concerns of today such as obesity. Over the past decade many states and individual school districts have begun to adapt these new guidelines and some have even set stricter policies for competitive foods. Thus competitive foods, including those sold in vending machines, a la cart in the cafeteria, at the snack bar, in the school store and even in some fundraising efforts, must meet the requirements in order to be sold, yet another step in the right direction for guiding our children in better nutrition intake.

Better Choices = Better Intake?

Changes to school food programs have provided access to healthier options for kids – fresh fruits, more vegetables, more whole grains and less fat. But are the kids actually eating them? A study published this summer found that although under the new mandated guidelines students are required to choose a fruit or vegetable, they are actually eating less of either. Although it was a small study, it points to the need for additional choices and options that kids will actually enjoy eating. Perhaps additional education and time to have better options begin take hold and become routine will help in adoption of better eating habits among our youth. But this initial research also points to the need for collaboration and choice. The key to better options in school lunches, snacks and competitive foods may be not in just offering healthier options, but in finding foods that are better for kids but also that they will actually enjoy eating.

Lunch TIME

In addition to a focus on better foods, another important consideration for schools is taking note of how much time students actually have to eat their lunch. Research suggests that shrinking lunch times lead to kids to feel rushed and eat less. Children who rush through lunch are not putting in to practice the healthy eating behaviors that will help to shape better eating habits down the road. Kids benefit from learning to eat slowly and enjoy their food versus rushing through a meal. Eating slowly not only increases enjoyment, but also can lead to fewer calories consumed. Research has shown that those who eat quickly are up to three times more likely to be overweight and that slower eating leads to less calories consumed. Further, food waste is increasing with decreasing lunch times. Better food offerings become less impactful when there is insufficient time to actually consume those school lunches.

The Future

The food environment in schools today is a complex one. From keeping children with food allergies safe to ensuring that children are growing well for a lifetime, schools are expected to be more vigilant than ever in providing food choices and policies to ensure a healthy future generation. Complex, mandated guidelines can be cumbersome and difficult to achieve from a logistical and budget standpoint. But the bottom line is that a good portion of a child’s daily nourishment happens in the school environment. And that means schools, in partnership with parents, health professionals and other community members, are in a unique position to shape and guide the eating behaviors and choices of our future – hopefully healthier – generations.

Peggy Kochenbach O’Shea, LDN, RDN is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and is also in charge of public relations and social media for the YummySnacks and Sneaky Chef brands of healthy food options.

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