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Alabama’s Early Efforts Put Them Ahead of the Curve

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When Alabama received the designation of 2nd heaviest state in the nation in the 2005 F as in Fat Report produced by the Trust for America’s Health, state lawmakers knew it was time to take action and came together to adopt the Healthy Snack Standards for school food in 2005. “It has been a whole state effort,” said Perry County School District Food Service Director Joyce Banks. “But we joined the Alliance for a Healthier Generation and took it a little further.” Banks is proud to share that every school in her district has earned the Silver National Recognition Award from the Alliance for efforts to improve student and staff wellness. 

The Need

A quick look at the health data in Perry County was enough to convince Superintendent John H. Heard III that some changes needed to be made. “I knew that if we didn’t take some type of action to intervene and change lifestyles, this generation would not have the life expectancy of their parents,” said Heard.  “The incidence of child and adolescent obesity and diabetes here was among the highest in the state. To think that the quality of life of so many of our children was being adversely affected because of preventable diseases was totally unacceptable to me.”

The Solution

Now that the federal government is rolling out the Smart Snacks in Schools nutrition guidelines, Alabama schools are ahead of the curve. The schools in Perry County are designated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as Provision 2, which means that the number of students eligible for a free lunch is high enough that they can simplify the paperwork and provide free meals to everyone. For that reason, Banks does not offer any a la carte items in the cafeteria. She doesn’t think it is right to offer foods for sale to students who cannot afford them; especially when there is a free meal available. “And we want them to eat the healthy, free meal.”

The high schools in Perry County have vending machines and those have switched to offering only water and 100 percent fruit juices. The machines are not allowed to be on during lunch. “Sure,” Banks said, “initially you see a little less participation, but I am a firm believer that students adapt to what is available. If they are thirsty, they will buy whatever is there. I have seen a vast increase in water consumption in high school students.”

About an hour north of Perry County is Bessemer City, where schools have seen a similar transformation. Child Nutrition Secretary for the Bessemer City School District Jennifer Gilbert shared, “We tried working with the snack vendors to put healthier items in the vending machine but it was overwhelming. Whenever we turned our back they put whatever they wanted in there. So we opted to remove all the machines from our schools.”

Any funds raised from the vending machines in Bessemer City schools went back to the child nutrition program so there wasn’t much push-back when they decided to remove the machines. There was the concern, however, that students who stay after school for activities would be hungry. So the food service team decided to add the compliant snack products to the lunch a la carte line where students could purchase them and the department could more easily manage and monitor the inventory. Since then the Bessemer City School District has also joined the federal afterschool meal program which reimburses for the snacks provided to students.

The Outcome

“By moving the compliant products from the vending machine to the a la carte line, we just replaced the revenue stream. Sure, we took a hit at first, but students are buying our 100 percent fruit slushes and baked chips,” Gilbert shared. She acknowledges that even though change is hard on everyone, “the new snack guidelines are necessary. We need to make our students healthier and to reduce obesity. If you are making all these changes with the meal patterns you are defeating the purpose if you don’t have snack guidelines that are aligned.”

Banks believes that the passage of the 2010 Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act has helped to strengthen the resolve around the state guidelines and she believes the same will happen with the Smart Snack guidelines. “I live in the Black Belt of Alabama and, as people mature, they are faced with great health issues down here. I think if we can start at a young age to develop healthier habits we have to try. Results will happen. It is gradual, but it will work. “

Banks also said that being part of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Healthy Schools Program has been a great partnership. “It brings people together to think about how we can do more; how we can continue to work towards our goal of healthier schools. Our superintendent is a strong supporter for the Alliance so that helps us continue the effort.”

Alabama’s Recipe for Success:

1)      Be patient. Students quickly adapt to change.

2)      Put all your eggs in the reimbursable meal—increase participation and ensure that kids get the healthy, complete meal they need.

3)      Find solutions for valid concerns. For example, when there was concern that students staying after school would be hungry, we joined the Afterschool Snack Program rather than rely on vending machines. 

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