There was a lot of Facebook discussion in reaction to Jessica Santina’s post last week titled Why I’m Unhappy with the Nevada School Wellness Policy. In fact, a representative from the Nevada Department of Agriculture (NDA) reached out to us and arranged a meeting between two of us from Reno Moms Blog and representatives from the NDA and the Washoe County School District (WCSD) Wellness Committee and Nutrition Services so that we could get answers to parents’ most burning questions. Here is what we discovered.
Q: Why does the Nevada’s Smart Snacks Approved List include processed junk food?
A: This list was actually created as a list of shelf stable items that could be sold at school via school stores and vending machines. The list was created using the Smart Snack Calculator, which has the federal government’s definition of healthy food. What is that definition? Here’s an excerpt from the Nevada School Wellness Policy:
To be allowable, a food item must meet all of the competitive food standards as follows:
- Snack/Side Item- ≤200 calories per item as served (includes any accompaniments)
- Entrée- ≤350 calories per item as served (includes any accompaniments)
- Snack/Side Item- ≤230 mg per item as served until June 30, 2016
- (≤200 mg after July 1, 2016)
- Entrée- ≤480 mg per item as served
- Total Fat- ≤35% of calories
- Saturated Fat- <10% of calories
- Trans Fat– 0 g per serving
Total Sugar- <35% by weight
We were told the list is “not a list of healthy snacks. It’s a list of snacks that meet the criteria.”
Q: Is the Smart Snack List restrictive (i.e. can I only bring snacks that are on the list)?
A: No. Foods that pass the “Smart Snack Calculator” are allowed.
Will foods that many parents deem unhealthy pass this calculator? Yes. But the Smart Snack Calculator is a federal mandate, so we likely can’t influence the federal government’s outdated definition of “Smart Snacks”. In fact, many of the national brands have reformulated what most parents would consider as junk food (i.e. Froot Loops and Pop Tarts) to pass this calculator.
According to this list and the policy, I could hold a Nevada Day party in my child’s classroom featuring chocolate milk (18g sugar per serving) and pop tarts (16g sugar per serving). Total sugar consumption by a child would be 34 g. For an elementary student, they shouldn’t have more than 12 grams in a day – so this combination of “Smart Snacks” would provide almost 3 days’ worth of sugar in one sitting.
Should I do that? Heck no. I need to use common sense and my own knowledge of what is healthy for growing bodies and facilitating learning. Outdated definitions of “healthy food” that would pass the calculator include: low fat, low calorie, refined oils, refined grains, and packaged food with ingredients you can’t pronounce.
Instead, I challenge local parents to find snacks that would pass the calculator AND meet the modern definition of healthy, including 100% whole grains, low sugar, no food colorings or artificial flavorings, and food that is more of a product of nature than a product of industry. Why does this matter? Read this article to learn more.
We’re not forced to follow the Smart Snack List, and the NDA wants to remind you that there are no restrictions on fruits and vegetables. Learn more about what foods would be healthy options at 100 Days of Real Food, and their Nut-Free Elementary Snack List has great options to consider.
The list of sugary beverages that are allowed is frustrating, as you can load up kids with a lot of sugar by giving them the juices and flavored milks that are approved by the federal government. Remember that the smartest choice is unflavored milk and water.
Q: Why don’t they provide a list of where to find the foods?
A: Because the list isn’t restrictive. Use the “Smart Snack Calculator.” The list was primarily created for use by vending-machine suppliers and school-store purchasers—in other words, people who have access to wholesale suppliers and can easily purchase these snacks. It’s not likely that many of these would be found at your local grocery store.
Q: Does the policy apply to the snacks that parents send in for their children to personally consume?
A: No. It applies only to what will be shared with others or sold. Personal lunches and snacks are not affected.
Q: Why is the state/school district telling me what I should feed my kid?
A: They’re not. They’re putting guidelines around what can be shared with other children.
Q: Why don’t they focus on improving the quality of school breakfasts and lunches?
A: The Wellness Policy is separate from Nutrition Services. It’s important to keep in mind the challenge that WCSD Nutrition Services is up against. Elementary schools don’t have kitchens, and kitchens aren’t going to be funded when schools are overcrowded in general. They are budgeted to spend about $1 per hot lunch, and they do their best to provide quality food that most children will eat at such a low price point. There are fruit and vegetable bars as part of all of the hot lunches, and most of the food is prepared locally in a centralized kitchen for heating at the local schools.
Part of the problem is the sheer volume and limited budget the school district faces with the nutritional services. They serve 50,000 meals per day. Half of Washoe County School District students are on free or reduced-price meals, meaning many of those children are food insecure.
We learned that the hot lunch quality isn’t as bad as people think —real beef and turkey hot dogs with no fillers and whole-grain crusts. We’re told the corn dogs have a whole grain crust and aren’t fried, and they are coating a turkey hot dog, so it’s not the typical corn dog you’d buy at the State Fair.
It comes down to budget. If there were an influx of cash, then maybe they could fix the system from the ground up, but considering how schools in Nevada get funded, that’s not a likely scenario.
In a nutshell: if you don’t like the quality of school food, pack your own. They’re doing their best within a lot of government and budgetary restrictions, and it’s not likely to change a lot in the near future.
Q: What are kids being taught about making nutrition and making healthy choices?
A: Here’s a quote from the WCSD policy: “The school wellness policy must include goals for nutrition promotion and education, physical activity, and other school-based activities that promote student wellness.” Read the full policy here.
Remember, they’re just rolling this policy out, and things in bureaucratic organizations take time to be implemented.
In a nutshell: They want nutritional education to happen, but it’s not going to happen in a speedy fashion. It’s up to us parents to teach healthy choices at home in the meantime.
Q: Why isn’t there more of a focus on physical education?
A: It comes down to budget once again. Elementary schools only have PE programs if there is fundraising to cover the cost of a teacher. Recess is considered a physical activity; the policy does offer guidelines that schools should work toward offering recess before lunch, and stating that schools should not withhold opportunities for physical activity as punishment.
In a nutshell: Don’t rely on the school district to give your children the appropriate amount of daily exercise. Engage in family exercise activities or sign your kids up for sports if you can afford it.
Q: Will schools be fined if they are caught violating the policy?
A: The NDA told us they’re not looking to police schools or “write tickets for fines.” They’re looking to help schools get in compliance with the wellness policies. We were told if there is an “egregious” case of non-compliance, federal reimbursements could at some point be withheld, but right now it is the goal of the WCSD and Nevada Department of Agriculture to work with schools and help them get in compliance so that schools don’t have to be penalized.
Based off of the conversation we had with the NDA and WCSD, it seems that there was misinformation distributed about schools being fined $125,000 for policy violations, inferring that teachers could bear the responsibility for paying those fines. It appears this was a miscommunication at the district level, so not the fault of teachers, and the original Reno Moms Blog post that referenced the fine was based on a teacher newsletter that referred to a fine. We were told that there wouldn’t be a $125,000 fine, and the NDA definitely wouldn’t hold a teacher responsible for paying those fines. It’s our understanding that any clarifying communication is up to WCSD to provide in their communications to the schools.
In a nutshell: Teachers are scared about the policy as a result of this misinformation, so they may eliminate all in-class food until things get cleared up. For this school year, unfortunately, this may be the case. However, the Wellness Committee sent to the superintendent, just last week, its list of requested exception days, which would be days in which the policy would not be enforced (for instance, for days of cultural or holiday celebrations, birthday celebrations, etc.). Once this request is reviewed and a decision is reached, it may be easier to observe celebrations in school.
Q: What can we as parents do if we’re unhappy about this policy?
A: You can attend the open meetings of the Student Wellness Advisory Board. The calendar and location of all meetings is listed here.
You can apply to be a Wellness Ambassador for your school.
But if you want my two cents, I say you should read the WCSD Wellness Policy and take it at face value, separate from the “Nevada Smart Snack” list. There truly are a lot of good changes being outlined in the policy. If you are going to bring in food to share, run it past the Smart Snack Calculator, and take the personal responsibility to bring in something healthy – something you’d be happy to have your own child consume. Remember that fruits and vegetables aren’t restricted. There are a ton of fun and healthy ideas online for class celebrations, but check out this Pinterest page to get you started.
Don’t rely on the government or school district to provide nutrition education and exercise for your kids. Health starts at home with parents and families serving as good examples. Teach kids the importance of eating unprocessed foods, eating a rainbow of produce, and participating in family exercise together. Teach kids what sugar and inactivity can do to your long-term health. (Need inspiration? Watch Fed Up, the movie.)
The federal government has an outdated definition of what it means for something to be healthy, which is perpetuating a culture of obesity in the next generation. Join me in making a stand to control what we can, which includes what you do at home, the foods you pack for school lunches, what you choose to bring in to school for students to share, and the way in which your family approaches exercise.
The things parents want take money — more money than what schools are currently getting. Speak out to lawmakers and in the voting booth about what you’d like to see happen in schools. If wellness is an issue that you’re concerned about, do something about it — attend a meeting, voice your concerns, and talk to teachers and principals about how you can work with them to ease this transition.
We’re in this together, and after our meeting with the NDA and WCSD, I believe we have smart and dedicated people who are doing the most they can within a lot of federal and budgetary limitations. We thank the NDA and WCSD for the work they’re doing and for helping us to answer these questions.