New State Requirements Limiting Sweets Sold In Schools May Impact Budgets

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A student stands near vending machines at the University of Arkansas Clinton School for Public Service in Little Rock, Ark., Wednesday in 2006. (AP/Danny Johnston)
A student stands near vending machines at the University of Arkansas Clinton School for Public Service in Little Rock, Ark., Wednesday in 2006. (AP/Danny Johnston)

As kids in Massachusetts head back to school, they will find that the sugary snacks and drinks they were able to buy at school will no longer be available. That's because a new state law regulating the sale of so called "competitive foods" — snack food that might replace an otherwise healthy lunch option — goes into effect this school year, starting September 1st.

School also must make changes to their lunch programs as new federal standard take effect at the same time. These changes are a challenge to many school districts that rely on revenues from their food sales. But health officials say it's time to change the eating habits of kids and move the trend toward obesity downward.



Interview Highlights

Cheryl Bartlett, director of the Bureau of Community Health and Prevention at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, describes how often students come into contact with the opportunity to buy food throughout the day:

All schools are different...some schools have already moved to a healthy nutrition in their schools. But schools offer competitive foods in the cafeteria that competes with the school lunch program, they have bake sales, they have celebrations in their classroom with food. There are concession stands and snack bars and other ways where kids can buy foods that aren't always the most nutritious.

Bartlett explained that the new regulations will apply to foods sold in the cafeteria a la carte next to the school lunch program and to foods sold in vending machines. It also prohibits the sugar-sweetened beverages from being available in schools, requiring water instead.

She also listed a number of discouraging consequences related to consuming unhealthy food:

What we're really seeing is an epidemic of overweight and obesity across the nation, and here in Massachusetts as well, with approximately 30% of our school children overweight or obese. And with that comes many consequences, with almost 80% likely to be an obese adult. That increases the risk for type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease. We associate more school absences due to triggers from chronic diseases such as asthma and diabetes. There's a decrease in physical fitness. What we're seeing for the first time perhaps a generation that's projected to have a decreased life expectancy from the preceding generation, and that's not something we've seen in this country before.

Gail Koutroubus, food service director for Andover Public Schools, highlighted some implementation challenges:

I think the challenges will be that we have to educate the students and the parents to try and get them to understand that these foods are not healthy for children, that we're doing the right thing and that we're going to make slow and gradual changes — try to get their input and buy-in to getting on board with these healthier changes...As food service directors, we definitely agree that the  challenge is going to be how we're going to implement it and how we're going to sustain that over our programs.

How schools have approached food has changed over the last couple of decades, as Koutroubus explained:

I started in school nutrition 26 years ago. And 26 years ago we were cooking from scratch. Vending machines were really far and few between, and if there were any, they were run generally by athletic directors and they were open at night for games. We've definitely changed through those years. We became more dependent on processed foods — it was quicker, it was easier, there wasn't as much labor involved, there wasn't as much skill involved. We tried to make thing easier. I think as a society, if you look back in time and you look at other things that we've done, you can see that things have changed, and we always try to do things faster and easier. And that's kind of what happened with school nutrition.

Koutroubus  also said that this change to processed foods heralded in the use of vending machines — which meant much needed revenue:

We went to processed foods, and we started selling things in vending machines like sports drinks and chips and those types of things, our programs became verysolvent. As the years have evolved, as budgets became tighter, as school superintendents and business managers were scrambling to try to figure out how to meet the bottom line, the foods service program — being very profitable — would contribute some of our money towards some of the indirect expenses. The success of our programs in the late 1980s, 1990s, early 2000s was judged more on our bottom line versus our nutritional integrity.

We know that selling healthier foods is the way we need to go. We've never been about selling unhealthy foods, but it has been difficult to meet the bottom line sometimes. And so sometimes we have sold things that maybe we should not have been selling, given what we know now.

The new guidelines deal not only with nutrition, but with the culture of food and how it integrates into healthy living overall. Bartlett said it's all part of a bigger state initiative:

This school nutrition standard implementation is party of a very comprehensive, mult-faceted campaign, Mass in Motion. Mass in Motion is in 52 communities where we're giving municipal wellness leadership grants to municipalities to really have an increased focus on healthy eating and active living. Healthy eating is one component of being healthy and reducing obesity, but we're also a more sedentary society, so how do we get people moving more? How do we make these choices the easy choice in our everyday life? We're helping communities assess what the barriers are to healthy eating and active living so that they can identify what they need to do to change...We're reaching 32% of the population with our Mass in Motion campaign as it exists today.

With food as pervasive as it is in our society, are we asking Massachusetts schools to do too much when it comes to changing how students think about nutrition? Koutroubus said no, affirming that an attitudinal change would be possible, but we have to be patient:

I think we need to start the education obviously at home and in schools. If we're sending the same message and hopefully the parents are sending the same message, then the kids will actually get the message. It's going to take time — it's going to take a few years for this to transform.

Koutroubus also pointed out that school food service programs aren't funded like math or science programs; instead, they have to generate their own income. She said this is problematic:

The food service program is expected to pay our bills like we are a restaurant, but we're not charging restaurant prices. We're a school lunch program — we're supposed to be there to provide a service to the students. We're not a restaurant where we're charging $10 for a plate, but yet we're expected to pay some of the indirect costs that a restaurant might have.

Some of those indirect costs include health insurance, lights and custodial costs.

Koutroubus' takeaway was that being able to provide healthy school nutrition inevitably comes down to sufficient funding for food service programs:

We need to be funded like a math program. If you want us to be part of the educational day (which is what we are)...trying to teach kids how to eat healthy (which is what the Department of Public Health has told us we need to do), we need to definitely fund us better.

This segment aired on August 27, 2012.


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