AUSTIN, Texas -- It's summer for most of the country, but for those in school food service, the months in between school years are busy as they prepare next year's menus. It's become a critical time, as well, since many state legislatures have begun regulating what students can and cannot eat while in school.
The Texas Department of Agriculture was at the forefront of this movement, when in March 2004 it issued the Texas Public School Nutrition Policy. Now, all schools in Texas participating in the National School Lunch Program are required to follow nutrition guidelines intended to improve the health of the state's schoolchildren.
Before the changes, students' meal options went largely unregulated. They could purchase soda, gum and candy -- known as foods of minimal nutritional value -- in most school cafeterias or in vending machines. The new guidelines limit the availability of fried foods and restrict minimal-nutrition snacks and "competitive foods," defined as foods and beverages that compete with the school's national lunch, breakfast and snack programs. This includes vending-machine sales, foods sold at fundraisers and snacks provided by parent groups or teachers. Portion sizes have also been reset.
The restrictions vary according to whether the school is an elementary, middle, junior high or high school. John Perkins, senior policy advisor for the Food and Nutrition Division of the Texas Department of Agriculture, was involved in creating the rules.
SN: What were the students eating before the changes in the state's nutrition policy?
PERKINS: A lot of students were eating school meals, but there was a lot of vending. There were a lot of other foods available in schools -- school parties, birthday parties, fundraisers -- at which children were receiving food that was not as nutritious as it should be. We have, as many states do, an obesity problem in Texas, so we tried to look at all food that was available in schools. Certainly some of the offerings in the school lunchrooms, the a la carte and snack-bar offerings, weren't as nutritious.
SN: What differences have students seen after the policy changes?
PERKINS: Our policy sets limits on the amount of fat and sugar in foods. It limits the amount of fried foods that are available, particularly french fries and other fried potato products.
We've done some surveys around the state. One of the comments I like is from a food-service director who said at the middle schools they were allowed to offer french fries three times a week, but they've dropped that down to once a week because the children aren't taking the fries. They like the fresh fruits and veggies.
SN: How might these changes affect household shopping patterns?
PERKINS: We have state law that requires children to be in school seven hours a day, 180 days a year. We know that what children see and what they're exposed to in school has an impact on them. We certainly hope that our new policy, combined with nutrition education and an emphasis in schools on health and fitness, will help them make better, healthier choices outside of school and for the rest of their lives.
SN: How do your school districts source products, and did the new policy require them to find new suppliers?
PERKINS: We've had, actually, great support from the food-service industry. Some of the traditional folks, like [Frito-Lay, Plano, Texas], developed a bunch of products to meet our policy guidelines.
I met with some vendors, and they were telling me that they've changed their product mix for California and for other states to comply with the Texas policy. We're having an impact on the nation.
SN: How has restricting the sale of competitive foods affected the food-service program?
PERKINS: We felt that an indicator of success would be that more children would participate in the lunch and breakfast programs. What we've found this year is that we have, statewide, 120,000 more students this year eating lunch and 50,000 more eating breakfast on a daily basis. We've limited the number of competitive foods, and children are going to eat anyway. Therefore, more and more children are coming back into the cafeterias and eating a regular school-lunch meal, which we know is healthier.
We have 4 million children in Texas schools. We hope that will transition into what families buy in the supermarket. If children get used to healthier foods in school, they will want those healthier foods at home. Therefore, that will affect the demand for healthier foods in supermarkets.