Insights by Goldie
Implementing new Seattle school nutrition policies

Sound Consumer | December 2005

by Goldie Caughlan
Quality Standards Specialist

Just over one year ago, on September 1, 2004, the Seattle School Board adopted what possibly may be the most comprehensive and progressive model of food and nutrition policies of any school district in the nation.

Designed to provide all students with healthy food and beverage choices during the school day, the policy calls for a ban on the sale of all foods containing high levels of sugar and fat. It also specifically directs schools to offer fresh, local, organic, non-genetically-modified, non-irradiated, unprocessed foods whenever feasible.

The policy has now brought a halt to the very controversial “pouring rights” contracts in schools, challenged by Sound Consumer four years ago in October 2001 (Too Much of the Real Thing: the Branding of Young Consumers). These pouring rights were phased out as the Coca-Cola contract came up for renewal this year and instead was allowed to expire.

Coke, Pepsi or other aggressive, brand-sensitive beverage companies shamelessly had gained highly profitable exclusive access to school vending machines all around the country over the past few decades. The hook, of course, was a “kickback” of fees to budget-strapped schools. Many districts have come to rely upon these kickbacks to fund athletics, music or other popular extra-curricular activities.

These deals-with-the-devil fortunately have been being re-evaluated in most schools around the country. The Seattle School Board definitely is to be commended for taking a solid and firm stand against selling out kids’ health. (For further information on school food policies, visit www.seattleschools.org, and look under Board Policies.)

The progressive and forward-thinking policies established by the Seattle School Board certainly did not come about casually or without forethought. The impetus toward improving student health has been blowing like a fresh breeze all across the nation, fueled by many factors. Public health research has shown shocking increased levels of obesity, with adult-style diseases affecting even the very young, with cardiovascular disease indicators of elevated cholesterol and blood pressure and Type II (adult-onset) diabetes.

Poverty and hunger rates have crept up, reaching into the middle class. More parents’ incomes have been outpaced by costs of housing, heating, medical costs and other necessities and take a heavy toll on family food security.

Increasingly, parents must rely upon the one or sometimes two meals a day that their children are eligible for at school, either free or at very reduced cost — in order to stretch strained family finances. Those school meals, therefore, must be foods that “count” — that are of very high quality nutritionally, since so many children have little else to eat most days. For those parents especially, sending a nutritious packed lunch from home is not an option.

But regardless of family financial circumstances, all children deserve to benefit from eating a broad variety of delicious, freshly prepared foods that are made with the highest quality ingredients available. After all, these are children we are feeding, and we are what we eat!

They deserve to enjoy these fresh and wholesome foods in pleasant surroundings, with ample time to eat, learning life-long socialization skills, gaining an understanding of where and how food is grown, how it is prepared, and becoming aware of how delicious and satisfying freshly prepared, wholesome foods can taste, and how they affect our health.

The groundwork for the changes in the Seattle School District was laid by a half-year’s intense and dedicated efforts in 2004, with input from more than 60 individuals working on the nutrition report and recommendations. It was initially spearheaded by Dr. Brita Butler-Wall (now the board chair) and diligently brought to its conclusion under the excellent guidance of Shelley Curtis, MPH, RD, a nutritionist working with the statewide advocacy group, The Childrens’ Alliance. (Find out about the work of the Childrens’ Alliance at www.ChildrensAlliance.org)

Now, one year later, full implementation of these ambitious and laudable policies has yet to be realized — but that is about to change. The Seattle School Board is approaching the “implementation phase” just as diligently and methodically (and I think, sensibly) as it did the initial work of preparing the work on nutrition policy changes. It’s rather like “Ready, Set...” and we are almost at “Go.”

Recently, the Seattle School Nutrition Services, under the direction of Anita Finch, together with some volunteers, has set in motion the important phase of planning for policy implementation. Things are moving!

Applicants are being sought now to form a Nutrition Advisory Council, which will advise and assist School Nutrition Services in implementing the nutrition policies. It’s important that the council is diverse and attracts creative and positive individuals with a range of expertise and perspectives. Assistance is welcome from community and business organizations, nutritionists and health and education specialists, as well as concerned parents and others willing to commit time and effort.

Council members will research and report on the best practices in the field of school nutrition. They’ll make recommendations in developing menu items. In general, they’ll work to help in the process of implementing Seattle’s school nutrition policies. Applications for serving on this exciting new council are due in January, with the first meeting to be in early February 2006 and monthly thereafter. As a task oriented council, additional work meetings may be needed.

This is a very powerful and sensible approach and a wonderful opportunity to bring about some very positive changes in our Seattle schools’ food services. I’m very interested, partly because I currently have one and next year will have two young granddaughters attending a wonderful public school in Seattle. However, their parents and I all want the girls’ school food experiences to reflect more closely the good nutritious foods they’re accustomed to at home.

I intend to apply to serve on the Nutrition Advisory Council. If you’re interested, willing and able, I urge you to consider this opportunity as well. To apply, go to www.seattleschools.org/area/nutrition-svc/index.dxml and click on “Nutrition Advisory Council” in the left column where you can read more details and download an application. If you do not have computer access, telephone Kirsten Frandsen at 206-252-0686 for instructions on applying.

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