By Karen Weintraub
Improving school snacks is now officially a no-brainer.
A new report from the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation concludes that getting rid of junk food at school boosts kids’ health and doesn’t hurt schools financially. Even many snack food companies are on board.
“What kids eat in school matters. If you change the school environment, they will eat healthier,” said Jessica Donze Black director of the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project, which produced the new report.
Snack food items should derive no more than 35 percent of their calories from either fat or sugar, and portion sizes should be limited to 100 calories for younger children and 180 calories for high schoolers, according to proposed new federal guidelines supported by the report.
What we offer kids affects what they eat today, and what they think will be acceptable to eat tomorrow, said former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner David Kessler, author of the 2009 book “The End of Overeating.”
“This is ultimately about changing what we want, but the way we do that is by changing our environment,” he said. “We don’t realize how much the environment affects our decision-making…It’s what we’ve put into our environment over the last 40 years that’s caused this [obesity] epidemic.”
In Massachusetts, where similar snack rules take effect for the fall, the changes won’t be dramatic in many districts. Brookline, for instance, expects to give up ice cream as a snack option, but not much else, according to Director of Food Services Sonya Elder. The district got rid of candy, transfats and sugary sodas years ago, Elder said, and most of its remaining snack items, like baked chips, are already relatively low in fat.
She said she supports the state guidelines, even though it means some short-term hassles for her department, making sure every item meets the standards.
“I think it’s a good regulation,” she said. “It gives us some structure.”
The biggest challenge is that the state regulations extend into the classroom, Elder said – meaning no more birthdays celebrated with cupcakes. (There’s a special exemption for bake sales, so maybe if you charge for the cupcakes…)
Karen Weintraub, a frequent contributor to CommonHealth, is a Cambridge-based health and science journalist.