George Lucas Educational Foundation

Making Nutrition a Part of School

Food becomes a boon, not a burden.
Grace Rubenstein
Former senior producer at Edutopia
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Credit: Bruno Budrovic
This is a multipart article. Click here to go to the beginning.

The alarm has been sounded: American kids are overweight and ailing as a result -- the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that one in three kids born in 2000 will develop diabetes (encouraged by those extra pounds) in their lifetimes. Though some school districts have offered institutional fixes, others haven't gone much beyond a ban on cupcakes at class parties. This year, savvy schools will figure out what some big food and beverage companies already have discovered: Improving children's health is big business.

In May, former president Bill Clinton brokered a deal in which four of the nation's biggest beverage distributors agreed to stop nearly all soda sales in public schools. You could call it purely altruistic, but it's a safe bet that those companies know they can profit as much from distributing Powerade in campus vending machines as selling Dr. Pepper. Thirsty schoolkids are captive consumers -- they'll choose from what's available, particularly if their parents approve.

Take the Fayette County Public Schools, in Lexington, Kentucky, a school district featured in the CDC's "Making It Happen" report on schools with model nutrition programs. In 2003, the district brandished a secret weapon -- a parent with experience in the food industry who saw that healthy fare and decent revenue could coexist. He helped negotiate a new vending machine contract that boosted the proportion of "healthy beverages" (water, juice, and sport drinks) and nutritious snacks offered in school. Sugary sodas and snacks sold for higher prices than the healthier alternatives, and schools earned a higher commission on the more healthful items. The vendor also agreed to pay the schools $500,000 more for the five-year deal than the previous contract had paid. Ka-ching! Here's the kicker: The kids bought it. And ate it. And drank it. Vending revenue to the schools actually went up the following year.

Anecdotal evidence from schools that have pushed healthier food seals the deal: Students' disruptive behavior drops when their sources of excessive fat, salt, and sugar are diminished.

Also on the horizon: meal partnerships between schools and local farmers, much like one found in southern California's Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, where nutrition specialist Dona Richwine says her farmers' market salad bar costs about the same as a standard hot lunch. It's labor intensive to clean and cut vegetables, she says, but produce is affordable in season and she uses cheap commodity items to balance out the labor costs. "If you want to do this," Richwine insists, "you can make it work."

What's Next > Rain Check

Grace Rubenstein is a senior producer at Edutopia.

Comments (5) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Carol's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

But fruit juices and sports drinks are still full of sugar and calories! If students' behavior improved, it was likely due to a reduction in caffeine, not due to a reduction in sugar or calories. Have any studies looked at weight or sugar intake to see whether either has changed at the schools that promote more "healthy" drinks?

Karma Wanamaker's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Schools get "free" commodities from government programs that give subsidies to farmers. Some of these items, for example, cheese, meat, are not the healthiest. And schools are also cutting back on lunch staff, so they take the easiest way out---what is the fastest to prepare.
Our lunch staff is trying. They work on recipes with students to try new and healthier ways of preparation. Unfortunately, students still prfer to to buy ala carte items which are the money makers for most districts (ice cream, chips, etc).

Helen Moore - 12175's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As an elementary school nurse, Stephanie Miklosey saw the effects of the childhood obesity epidemic right before her eyes.
An elementary school's nutrition program is working to change the way kids eat.
At Philadelphia's John Welsh Elementary, Milkosey saw students who had a range of obesity-related conditions including diabetes, high blood pressure and asthma.

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