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Schools don't relish role as food police

Union Leader Correspondent

January 15. 2012 10:55PM

The days of sweets and other junk food handed out regularly at school parties, sold at school fund raisers, in school vending machines and offered at other times during school hours are over.

In an attempt to crack down on unhealthy foods served up in New Hampshire schools, the state Board of Education last month adopted rules for meeting minimum standards for public school approval that focus on school nutrition.

Most schools have already been encouraging healthier eating habits through their own school wellness policies, but the new state requirements will force them to take another look at those policies and likely take further steps to toss foods that aren't nutritious.

Epping school officials are among those wondering what the new rules will mean.

At a recent meeting, some Epping School Board members expressed frustration over the school district's role as the food police.

'The school board and the school are being placed in a position where we become the parent for the children trying to make sure of what they eat and what they don't eat. It's a bit bizarre, and quite honestly, what's happening a lot as far as the teaching profession itself is the teachers are becoming surrogate parents to the students,' said Epping board member Jeff Harris.

With every new policy that's established, Harris said it's 'less time that's being given and placed into the education of our students and it's a darn shame.'

Food hit list

Among other things, the new state requirements set standards - based on federal guidelines - for nutrient-dense foods and beverages for each grade level, portion sizes, and nutrition targets for foods and beverages made available outside the federally regulated school meals program.

Schools must avoid foods of minimal nutritional value. According to federal guidelines, some of those foods include soda, gum, hard candies such as mints, jaw breakers, sugar wafers and other candy like licorice and candy-coated popcorn.

Federal bill

This is the first time the state has provided guidance on school nutrition, said Nancy Stiles, a state senator from Hampton who worked on the new rules and was the school nutrition director in Hampton for 30 years before retiring in 2004.

Schools are also required to provide information about the policy to school staff, the school board, students and parents.

'This makes the fundraisers aware of the need to be concerned about the policy,' Stiles said.

The requirements come in response to the federal child nutrition reauthorization bill of 2010, which reauthorized funding for school meal and child nutrition programs for five years.

The federal bill included new rules for local school wellness policies first required under the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004.

Snacks, sales, parties

Epping's school wellness committee planned to meet last Friday to develop recommendations for revising its wellness policy. Those recommendations are expected to go before the school board within the next couple of months, school Superintendent Barbara Munsey told the school board at a meeting Jan. 4.

Munsey said the new rules would govern what schools can offer for snacks, sell in school stores, and offer at parties and during other extracurricular activities.

Epping School Board member Brian Reed expressed concern about teachers eventually being written up for giving cake to students. Munsey said it would be a 'violation of school board policy at that point.'

"It seems so ridiculous that we would slap a teacher for giving a kid a treat," Reed said.

The goal is to control the foods sold and offered only during the school day, officials said.

'What they do outside of school and what happens in the gym in the evening is not controlled by that at all,' said Judith Fillion, a registered dietician and director of the division of program support at the state Department of Education.

The state is preparing a technical advisory that will clearly tell schools what they can and can't do as they work to meet the standards, Fillion said.

Food as reward

While schools will have to make changes, many have already yanked soda and other non-nutritious foods from vending machines and taken other steps to provide healthier food options.

Many teachers have begun to limit the sweets offered at parties by replacing them with more fruits, vegetables, crackers and cheese.

Munsey said the rules would also prohibit the use of food as a reward for students.

Harris wonders whether schools would be allowed to pass out gum to students during lengthy standardized tests, as some have done in the past.

'It's an effective tool in testing,' he said.

Schools often use gum to help students with behavioral and attention issues.

While food as a reward is also an approach sometimes used by special education departments to help certain students, Munsey said the special education staff in Epping is already looking at changes.

Stiles has always discouraged offering food as a reward.

'Instead of an ice cream party as a reward, have an extra recess or run around the school,' Stiles said, adding that she would also like to see schools move away from selling food to raise money.

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