Eliminating unhealthy food options and conflicting messages within schools can help keep kids healthy, and the Smart Snack Policy set to go into effect next school year will require schools to start cutting down on less-than-ideal options offered during school hours, attendees at the Summit for Healthy Children learned Friday.
More than 250 people attended the event put on by Missoula County Public Schools and Let’s Move! Missoula at the University of Montana. Friday’s event followed two previous summits focused on nutrition and wellness.
Many people don’t realize the impact foods that compete with school-provided nutritional options can have on students’ health, said Heather Davis Schmidt, an executive regional director for MCPS who co-chairs the Graduation Matters Missoula wellness subcommittee.
“I’m talking about all those other ways food’s involved in our schools and about how we create a healthy food environment in our schools,” Davis Schmidt said.
Already, wellness groups at MCPS have worked to create draft policies, which address foods at school stores, vending machines, fundraising during the school day, rewards and snacks provided by staff, and classroom celebrations. The guidelines don’t address brown-bag lunches, snacks from home, teacher workrooms, or concessions and other fundraising done outside the school day.
One proposal, for example, is that classroom celebrations would be limited to one per month per classroom. Only one food or beverage not meeting nutrition standards would be allowed.
Foods and drinks wouldn’t be used for rewards or incentives in the classroom, and fundraising groups at schools would be required to sell only foods and drinks that comply with nutritional standards. Items in school stores, vending machines, coffee carts, snack bars and concession stands also would be required to meet nutritional standards and would need approval from building principals.
Feedback from breakout sessions during the summit will be used to modify the policies and develop action plans, Davis Schmidt said.
Keeping kids healthy impacts their learning and their life’s health, said Katie Bark, director of the Montana Team Nutrition Program who spoke during the event.
When it comes to having the conversation about keeping kids healthy, “we don’t want to wait until it’s too late,” she said.
Concerns that students aren’t healthy enough are valid, Bark said.
A study of third-grade MCPS students showed that 27 percent of them are overweight or obese, she said. “It’s a real issue.”
To help kids make healthy decisions, offer them tasty, visually appealing options, Bark suggested.
Make options easy to access and educate kids about why one thing is healthier than another. Also, take away unhealthy options, she said.
And be a role model by making healthy decisions, such as drinking plenty of water, Bark added.
To help reduce confusion, remove conflicting messages, such as rewarding children with treats in class, she said.
People may ask what the big deal is about rewarding a student for good work with a small piece of candy.
“Well, the big deal is it’s cumulative,” Bark said, adding that one piece of mint candy a day adds up to more than 3 pounds of sugar in a year.
Schools are just one of the stakeholders in healthy kids, she said, applauding other community leaders for attending the summit and working together.
Davis Schmidt also said that the issue of kids’ health is a community one that needs and deserves a community effort.
“And this is one piece of that,” she said about the summit.
Healthy kids are in school learning instead of home sick and are more likely to graduate. Long term, healthy kids will become healthy adults who won’t put a high strain on the health care system and who will constructively contribute to society, she said. “Ultimately, we will be a better society for it.”