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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Students at Monroe Elementary in West Valley eat a meatless lunch Monday, Oct. 24, 2011. The Granite district is instituting meatless mondays to show that you can have a healthy meal without using meat.
These standards will go a long way toward making sure the choices kids make throughout the day are healthy choices. —Jessica Donze Black

SALT LAKE CITY — Public schools will soon shift from stocking vending machines with candy bars and donuts to low-fat tortilla chips and light popcorn.

The shift comes as part of an effort to combat childhood obesity while teaching kids healthy eating habits.

"It's a good start to start out doing it in elementary school. By the time you get to high school it's almost too late," said Aimee Waters, a mother of three girls ages 8 to 18.

Schools nationwide will be required to follow regulations for food sold in vending machines, stores and a la carte lines, according to standards announced by the United States Department of Agriculture on Thursday. It's the first time the Department of Agriculture's guidelines have been updated since 1979.

Some of the standards for schools include having food that is more than 50 percent whole-grain by weight, or food that has whole grains, fruits, vegetables, dairy or protein as the first ingredient.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 requires schools to follow nutrition guidelines for school lunches and ensure that competing foods — foods sold at the school outside of lunch and breakfast — meet similar guidelines. Over the 2012-13 year, schools implemented the stricter guidelines for school lunches.

"These standards will go a long way toward making sure the choices kids make throughout the day are healthy choices," Jessica Donze Black, director of the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project, said.

Schools nationwide have until the 2014-15 school year to be in compliance with the snack food standards, called Snack Smart.

According to the Department of Agriculture, kids eat half their meals at school, which means the food habits they develop during those hours has a major impact on their health, Black said.

The financial impact on schools should be minimal, she said. Students who did not have access to less healthy items bought meals at school instead, according to the health impact assessment done by the Kids' Safe and Healthful Foods Project. The meals were better for the students' health, Black said, because they received a balanced meal, and the schools received money from the student's purchase and reimbursement from the Department of Agriculture.

High national obesity levels were the driving force behind the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, according to Kevin Concannon, the United States Department of Agriculture under secretary for food, nutrition and consumer services.

"We are in the midst of really a crisis — a public health crisis — with so many people seriously overweight," Concannon said.

These snack and school lunch changes will affect 99 percent of public schools and half of private schools nationwide, he said. Each year 33 million American students eat school lunch, but 50 million attend school, he said. These new standards will create a nutritional environment for students.

Obesity is a "major determinant" for chronic diseases cancer, heart disease and type II diabetes, according to Bill Dietz, former director of the Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity at the Centers for Disease Control.

"The risk factors for those diseases start in childhood, so that changing the trajectory of children's exposure to those risk factors is likely to have benefits down the line."

Impact in Utah

Officials in the Jordan School District learned about the act in 2011, according to Jana Cruz, director of nutrition services for Jordan Schools. Since that time, they "worried and wondered" about how strict the snack requirements would be.

"I think the heart of the policy is good. We all want our younger generation to learn to make healthy choices, to make healthy choices, in many cases healthier choices than what we have made so that they will have healthy long lives."

Her main concern is that the district does not have enough time to educate students about healthy nutrition choices. Minus that education, she said, students may balk at not having a choice about what to eat. She said she saw this last year when they changed the content of school lunches.

"I just think there needs to be an increased awareness of healthy choices. There just needs to be a lot of learning that needs to take place," she said.

"Nobody likes to be told what to do and specifically nobody likes to be told what they can and cannot eat," Katie McDonald, a clinical dietician at Primary Children's Hospital, said.

It would be nice to provide students with options, she said, but schools face the difficult task of providing quality, bulk, meals on tight budgets.

However, she said, change is needed.

"I think these guidelines are very well intended. I think the epidemic with obesity is undeniable. Nobody can argue with that and we need to do something."

The guidelines have a good start in offering fewer empty calories and smaller portions, and will provide students with positive eating habits, which may in turn influence their families.

"Schools do have an important role in setting a high standard," McDonald said. "Still, it is the family that has the primary responsibility."

Families can supplement the healthy choices that kids are making at schools by learning about nutrition, she said. Some resources she recommends are Kids Eat Right, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Department of Agriculture's My Plate Initiative.

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