11/04/04 — Schools preach smart eating

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Schools preach smart eating

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on November 4, 2004 2:00 PM

The push to create a healthier generation of students continues.

Responding to the growing concern about childhood obesity, the state-sponsored "Eat Smart" program is being implemented in Wayne County public schools.

By January, plans are to have pilot programs in three schools, expanding to include all 31 by the start of the next school year.

Barbara Ward, director of child nutrition for the school system, told the school board Monday night about some of the state standards being set for food and beverages in schools. She said the move was prompted by the problem of overweight children in North Carolina and across the country.

Between 1995 and 2000, she said, the number of overweight children between ages 5 and 11 increased 40 percent.

She said that in 2003, one in four youths age 12 to 18 were overweight. For 5- to 11-year-olds, one in five were overweight.

"Nearly 40 percent of kids' calories come from added fat and sugar," she said.

She said one way to slow the trend is to consider all the foods offered at school. That extends beyond breakfast and lunch, she said, to include vending machines, classroom snacks, and foods provided at meetings, parties, after-school programs, as well as athletic events.

"We must provide a healthy food environment," she said. "It must be multi-level."

She said the state strategy is designed to improve eating habits of children and teens in schools. The Wayne County school system, she said, is complying with the national school lunch and breakfast programs.

The "Eat Smart" program grew out of recommendations from the N.C. Health Weight Initiatives 100-member task force. In 2003, a panel of educators, nutritionists, physicians and public health professionals developed the program as a way to motivate changes in nutrition in the school environment.

Several things have already been done locally to change students' eating habits. Ms. Ward said cafeterias offer fresh fruit and salads daily, as well as more baked items, and the choice of 1 percent flavored and unflavored milk. Vending machine choices have also improved, she said, with more featuring 100 percent juices and bottled water.

At Spring Creek High School, she said, a milk machine has been added.

Ms. Ward said implementing the program does present the potential for loss of revenue. Other state and local funding will eventually be needed to offset the loss.

For the program to be effective, she said, it must be a partnership not only among those in the school system, but with the parents.

"We've already discussed things with the principals," she said. "We have a dietician with the Health Department analyzing our menus to let us know which menu choices are the healthiest."

The next step will be getting people educated so that they will choose the healthier items, she said.