Create a Nutrition Policy
If you serve it, they will come. Serve healthy food, that is.
With many American students receiving a large percentage of their daily calories from school breakfast and lunch programs, it’s important to ensure that this food is nourishing and healthful. Developing a comprehensive, district-wide nutrition policy can help combat childhood obesity and obesity-related illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease and hypertension, as well as teach children the value of healthy eating. Plus, studies on nutrition show a direct link between healthy food and better grades and improved behavior.
Getting Started. A comprehensive and effective nutrition policy will require a wide range of input, so form a committee to focus on the task at hand. Include teachers, food service faculty, nursing staff or local health experts, and parents to help address the nutritional issues that face the school district as well as the community.
A quick glance to the cafeteria menu or the window of a vending machine will provide some obvious places to get started, but it is just as important to formulate a nutrition plan so that old habits and choices don’t sneak their way back into the cafeteria and to determine how to create, implement and maintain a specific nutrition plan that works for your school. Sample nutrition plans can be found on sites such as School Nutrition, Nutrition.gov or the United States Department of Agriculture’s Children’s Nutrition Research Center.
While cafeteria meals and snacks should be the first focus, also try to consider other areas of school life where food comes into play. Examine the nutritional value of food offered in vending machines, and determine the role that food will play in classroom parties, class rewards or after-school programs and events.
Setting Standards. Together, the committee can discuss current concerns as well as goals that the new policy should achieve.
- Serving sizes. Develop meal standards that provide the recommended daily servings of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
- Restrictions. Set appropriate limits for sugar, sodium and fat (don’t forget saturated and trans fats) content.
- Natural, organic and local. Make commitments for serving only foods with natural organics and set goals for integrating organic foods. Look for local providers for food supplies. Many farmers will provide deals for contract work for schools.
- Special dietary needs. Plan for how to accommodate special diet needs such as vegetarian or lactose intolerant students.
- Food allergies. Pay special attention to food labels and provide rigorous training of food-service personnel in order to protect affected students.
Elements of a Nutrition Plan. Minimally, nutrition plans enforce the school district, state and federal nutrition requirements. Most plans dramatically exceed the requirements.
- Healthier, healthiest. Move toward fresh fruits and vegetables, lowfat milk and lean meats. Engage students and staff for taste tests or menu contests
- Start the day in a healthy way. It’s no surprise that the student falling asleep in the back row at 10am didn’t have breakfast. If possible, incorporate a school breakfast program with healthy, yet appetizing options.
- Healthy food accessible to all. Consider offering free and reduced-price meals for everyone in school, including students and staff. Supplement food with the bounty of a school garden or fundraisers with a food theme (plants, seeds or a school cookbook).
- Take time. It’s important to give students enough time to eat and schedule lunchtime between 11:30 am and 1pm.
- Portion control. Using smaller plates and dishing out smaller servings not only cuts down on waste, but cuts down on waistlines. Heap on the veggies, and downsize the meat.
- Meatless Mondays. Choose a day to serve fruit, vegetables and grains only. It’s healthy for the environment and a great chance to showcase delicious new recipes. Include students by allowing them to vote on new meals.
- To market. Invite a local farmer’s co-op to offer samples of seasonal fruit and vegetable offerings during lunch period. Or, the co-op can have a farm stand in the school parking lot in the fall and spring after school hours where students, staff and parents can shop and snack.
Make Change Happen. Compare the district’s current standards with the goals set forth by the committee to help develop long- and short-term plans that will put the new policy into action. Not only will a transitional approach be more likely to help the plan succeed, but it will also allow students time to get used to the changes.
If possible, appoint a food service director to oversee the implementation of the policy, train food service staff in food preparation and healthy portion sizes, and educate the staff on the policy’s core values. Furthermore, find ways to promote nutrition education in the classroom to help students understand the importance of healthful eating.
Finally, encourage a community-wide effort toward better nutrition. If teachers, faculty and parents model healthy eating behaviors, students will be more likely to pick up on such habits.