New school nutrition rules prompt few changes at Fresno Unified

Fresno BeeJuly 11, 2013 

New federal guidelines handed down in late June will nix sugary beverages and sodium-filled snacks from public school vending machines by fall of 2014, an edict that Fresno Unified School District officials say is largely in line with current operations.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations mean only minor tweaks to foods California schools offer youngsters. That’s because two state laws passed in 2005 already keep schools from selling high-calorie chips and sodas.

“California is ahead of the game, so we’re pretty much dialed in,” said Jose Alvarado, food services director at Fresno Unified. “It’s a good thing; we want to make sure our kids are healthy and meet the requirements.”

But some changes are coming for Fresno Unified. The district offers two types of snack bars, both over 290 calories, that will be removed from the menu. Two Chex cereals that exceed new salt and sugar quotas will also be pulled, Alvarado said.

“We feel like we’re probably 95% there,” he said.

Even so, health problems associated with junk food are still widespread among Fresno County students, said Reyna Villalobos, a community-building specialist with the Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program.

“The USDA standards are a move in the right direction, but we still have a ways to go,” she said. “We still need to ensure health is prioritized, just like math and just like reading is.”

The federal “Smart Snacks in Schools” standards are aimed at improving the health of school-age kids nationwide.

They focus on adding whole grains and fruit and veggie-based fare to school snack dispensers. That means students across the nation will say goodbye to salty chips and cookies and hello to 200-calories-or-less fruit cups, low-sugar yogurt and popcorn. They still can bring snacks from home, and sugary treats still are allowed at classroom parties and fundraisers.

Caloric soda is on its way out, too. Low- and no-fat milk, fruit juices and carbonated water will substitute for high-calorie drinks under the new rules.

But in California, Snickers bars and Coca-Cola-filled vending machines are already a thing of the past. State law says schools can’t sell caffeinated beverages, and snacks — which must be low in fat and sugar — can contain no more than 250 calories.

Even with those standards, Fresno County students are still heavier and less physically fit than many of their California peers.

The most recent data from the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health Kids Data project shows 42.7% of Fresno County youth are considered overweight or obese. The state average is 38%.

In 2012, more than 50% of Fresno Unified fifth graders were considered overweight — a trend also mirrored in grades seven and nine, according to Kids Data. In that year, only 15% of the district’s fifth-graders met all six state fitness standards, health benchmarks that include a mile run, pull-ups and stretching.

That could be for a variety of reasons, Villalobos said, including lack of exercise, poverty or easy access to unhealthful food.

“A lot of the children are saturated by fast-food outlets,” she said. “The minute they step outside their home they are surrounded by unhealthy options. It’s very challenging for a child who lives near a liquor store that sells soda for 75 cents.”

Ed Burke, a nutritionist with Fresno Unified, said the district is turning familiar fast-food messaging on its head to combat that problem. The district has started using Burger King’s “Have it your way” motto to teach kids about preparing their own healthful food.

“We’re telling kids if you make your food and participate in this, you’re making it ‘your way.’ You’re making it healthy for you,” he said.

Exposing kids to food they’ve never tried — like a slice of jicama or cucumber coins — is one way to get kids excited about nutritious options. Fresno Unified got about $1.5 million in state grant money last year to offer students free produce throughout the school day, a plan Alvarado says has helped shift the way students approach snacking.

“The USDA is not regulating foods that are brought from home, but we encourage students to make healthy choices not only at school but at home,” Alvarado said. “When we taste-test fresh fruits and vegetables, we create lifelong eating habits.”

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, or @hannahfurfaro on Twitter.

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