By Jessica Bledsoe
Wasatch School District is leading Utah in a new health initiative by limiting student access to unhealthy foods through vending machines and teachers.
The new policy, which will take effect for the 2004-2005 school year, requires 70 percent of vending machine foods in junior highs and high schools to be in accordance with health standards set by the board.
The policy officially bans vending machines in elementary and middle schools and discourages teachers from using food as a reward in the classroom.
District officials are also required to develop a plan to lower use of processed foods and increase fruits and vegetables in school cafeterias.
Wasatch School Board member Alan Bluth, said the policy took 14 months to write, and is in response to an increased concern about obesity in children.
“Obesity is a national epidemic that is going to be very difficult for our country if we don”t get a handle on it,” Bluth said. “Our schools ought to be educating kids on how to live as well as the book stuff. Health is an integral part of what we should be teaching.”
Debates over nutrition have surged in past years due to the rising epidemic of obesity. Earlier this year, obesity surpassed tobacco as the No. 1 preventable cause of death in the United States.
Barnes said this is why he also supports national and state initiatives to legislate against innutritious food to help “stem the tide of obesity.”
“The environment around us influences our behaviors in major ways,” said Barnes. “And if people”s environments are so invaded with junk food options … they feel trapped in finding nutrition. It is the government”s responsibilities in certain circumstances to step in and say we”ve got to control the environment. I support it 100 percent.”
Wasatch School District earns $15,000 a year in vending machine sales, and uses the money to fund school clubs and activities. Teachers in the district said they were initially worried the new policy would drastically reduce this funding.
“We are so committed to this concept, we told the school that we would make up the difference,” Bluth said. “But we do not think we will have to subsidize.”
Teachers were also upset when they learned vending machines in the teacher”s lounges would undergo the same makeover. Once they became involved in the project, however, they began to understand the positive outcomes and pushed for even more drastic measures, Bluth said.
Bluth and his colleagues decided on this course of action after visiting with other schools nationwide that have successfully implemented the similar restrictions.
Bluth”s inspiration was a superintendent in North Carolina who decided to back out of a $5 million food services contract when he heard that diabetes in children was steadily increasing.
In the North Carolina district, revenue dropped off initially when the plan was introduced but sales were up again by the end of the school year because the children finally began to warm to the “healthy stuff,” Bluth said
Michael Barnes, BYU professor of Health Science, said this policy change for Wasatch mirrors the standards set by various national organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“The policy to me is very positive,” Barnes said. “Wasatch is looking beyond the short run and they are focusing on the long run. It is a bold move and I think it is a powerful move. The overall point of the policy is not to cater to student choices. It”s catering to student health.”
A healthy breakfast, lunch and snack during the day actually increase student alertness, Barnes said, whereas typical vending machine foods have the opposite effect because they are high in fat and sugar.
Barnes said students who eat quick, pick-me-up junk food often feel sluggish and lethargic 30 to 40 minutes later.
“It actually perpetuates the problem, whereas more healthy snacks do not promote that sort of high blood sugar response,” Barnes said.
Nebo School District is also cementing a policy on vending machines to ensure the schools have a set of guidelines, but Lana Hiskey, public relations director for the district, said there is no talk of banning certain foods.
“We are fairly certain that there would not be any vending machines at the elementary level,” Hiskey said. “We are just staying pretty much with what we have always had.”