The writer, of Firth, Neb., is superintendent of the Norris school district.
It is spring in Nebraska, and that means schools across the state are in what we call “test fest,” when teachers help students prepare for the Nebraska State Accountability tests. A common practice is to help improve student performance by providing a healthful snack on test day.
You don’t have to be a public health expert to see that if these healthful snacks improve students’ alertness and cognitive performance on test day, they would likely have a similar effect every day. Yet, many schools continue to serve and sell all kinds of unhealthful snacks and beverages.
As a school superintendent, I know firsthand that helping kids be successful at school is about more than test scores. It’s about everything from the teachers, to the classrooms to the food and drink available at school. That’s why the proposed updates to nutrition standards for school snacks are so important.
The updates, put forth by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, call for more healthful competitive foods, items such as the snacks and drinks sold a la carte in our school cafeterias, school stores and vending machines.
Many kids consume up to half of their daily calories at school, which makes sense because they spend so much time there. And too many of them are consuming junk foods and sugary drinks, instead of — or in addition to — their school meals.
In Nebraska, more than 31 percent of children are overweight or obese, and studies show that children who are obese are more likely to be obese as adults. If current trends continue, more than 56 percent of Nebraskans could be obese by 2030. In fact, over the next 20 years, obesity could contribute to more than 225,000 new cases of type 2 diabetes in Nebraska.
Like other Nebraska districts, we’re taking simple steps in our schools to ensure a better future. We’ve improved lunch menus and the availability of healthful snacks while increasing opportunities for physical activity.
That’s why every school in our district, along with several other Nebraska schools, has been recognized as competition winners in the USDA HealthierUS School Challenge. And we’ve engaged our students in the process to help generate excitement for healthier items, whether introducing kiwi fruit in our elementary-school snack program or featuring whole-grain crust on the popular pizza we serve at lunch.
But we still have a long way to go in the Norris school district and across Nebraska. Having strong national guidelines for competitive foods will be a major step in the right direction. Once in place, they will help close loopholes that could keep unhealthful items in schools. They also will help ensure that all Nebraska kids, regardless of age, race, ethnicity or geography, have access to healthful snacks and beverages.
This is not a one-size-fits-all approach. The proposed standards were wisely designed to let local school districts like ours adapt them to fit the particular needs of our students, so long as the choices meet the nutritional criteria. School districts will have the leeway to build on the standards — allowing for a successful snack program that works for our kids and our local producers such as Prairieland Dairy and Jisa’s Farmstead Cheese.
In addition, having strong standards for school snacks and beverages will be good for student health and school finances. A recent study has shown that such standards would likely decrease the amount of unhealthful snacks and beverages in schools and increase purchases of healthier items.
Schools foster attitudes and instill habits that last a lifetime. Our mission statement at Norris is similar to those of many of Nebraska’s 248 other districts: We embrace the responsibility of promoting success — not just today, tomorrow and next week but for a lifetime. We have a primary place at the table in promoting healthful lifestyles through nutritious choices.
We ought to have the courage to commit to providing healthful snack options to our students every day, not just test day. Everyone in Nebraska can voice support for strong USDA guidelines for competitive foods at www.leadership forhealthycommunities.org/ usdacomments.
Let’s make a collective commitment to ensure that the final USDA guidelines are as strong as possible — for the health and achievement of a generation and the future of our nation.