Out of Balance Report: Q&A with Jessica Donze Black

Nov 1, 2012, 10:32 AM

A new report released today examines state standards for the types of snacks that can be sold in secondary schools. The report was developed by the Kids’ Safe & Healthful Foods Project, a joint initiative of RWJF and The Pew Charitable Trusts that is focused on ensuring all foods and beverages in school are healthy and safe. 

Some of the findings were discussed earlier this week at a session at the American Public Health Association annual meeting, and the full report is now available online. NewPublicHealth caught up with Jessica Donze Black, the project’s director, to learn more about the report.

NewPublicHealth: You’ve just released a new report about school snacks – what did you find?

Jessica Donze Black: We found that the majority of our nation’s students live in states where less healthy snacks like full-fat chips and candy are readily available in snack bars, school stores and vending machines – but there is limited access to healthy snacks. What students are able to buy varies widely from state to state, with some offering healthy snacks and others primarily providing less-healthy snack options.

The report recommends that the U.S. Department of Agriculture issue consistent, science-based standards to ensure all students have access to healthy snacks at school, regardless of where they live. The standards will establish a baseline that will help local communities make healthy choices when choosing what snacks to offer.

NPH: Have any states had success with offering healthy snack foods in schools? 

Jessica Donze Black: Yes, some states are moving in the right direction to make the snack food environment healthier. For example:

  • In New Hampshire half of the schools offer fruit options in school stores, snack bars, or vending machines.
  • In Michigan more than one-third of the schools sell vegetables in snack venues.
  • In Alabama, only 11 percent of schools sell full-fat salty snacks.
  • In West Virginia, only 3 percent of the schools sell soda or fruit drinks.

In a report we released earlier this year, we found that school districts in states that set basic nutrition requirements saw their revenue from snack sales either increase or stay the same.

NPH: Why should we care about the kind of snacks sold in schools?

Jessica Donze Black: What we know is that obesity rates have more than tripled among children and teens over the past three decades, leaving nearly one in three kids overweight or obese.

Research also shows that 110 to 165 calories per day – the difference between eating an apple or a bag of chips for a snack may be responsible for these skyrocketing obesity rates among children. And a study released this summer shows that strong nutrition standards for snack foods sold in schools may help reduce students’ weight gain.

NPH: Will healthier snacks in schools really make a difference when many other factors play into childhood obesity and chronic disease? 

Jessica Donze Black: Many children get as many as half of their daily calories while at school, so what they eat and drink there does play a major role in contributing to their overall health and well-being. In addition, school is where many children learn dietary habits that will last them a lifetime, so it is beneficial to begin teaching them to choose healthier alternatives while they are young.

NPH: But what about the kids, do they really want healthier snacks? What do parents want?

Jessica Donze Black: Experience tells us that kids will eat the healthier options. Students consume more nutritious snacks when less healthy foods are not available. Many schools that have already implemented healthier snack programs have gotten kids to eat and enjoy new healthier options by surveying kids to find out what foods were interesting to them, conducting taste tests and offering samples.

In a poll of parents we conducted earlier this year, 80 percent favored national nutrition standards for snacks and beverages sold in schools. A healthier school snack program assures that schools offer the same healthy choices that parents try to provide at home. 

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.