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Bellwether State Tries Smart Snacks on for Size

The Need

“I get to sit back now and know that we are going to be ok,” said Jessica Shelly, Food Service Director for Cincinnati Public Schools. “In fact, the competitive food guidelines have helped us increase our revenue.”

Back in 2010, a bipartisan group of representatives in Ohio adopted Senate Bill 210 to advance the health of children by improving nutrition and increasing physical activity at school. With one of the highest childhood obesity rates in the country, taking action was critical. When the state passed this bill, Ohio became the first state in the country to turn the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Competitive Foods and Beverages Guidelines, which outline nutritional criteria for snacks and beverages sold in school, into law. Now that all U.S. schools have to meet the federal Smart Snacks in School nutrition guidelines by July 2014, which also closely mirror the Alliance’s guidelines, we can look to Ohio to see how implementation might play out in the rest of the country.

The Solution

Key to this success was demanding more from snack food vendors. In 2010, when Shelly and her team set out to swap unhealthy items from the vending machines for more nutritious products, they learned that there were “rogue” machines everywhere, put in by different people over the years. Shelly realized it was too hard to keep track of all of these machines, and there was no accountability in the system. School leaders had no idea who was buying what and how much was being sold. They needed a clean slate. She put out a request for proposal (RFP) for a new vending company that would provide machines with timers and with items that met the new nutrition guidelines. Also, she asked the companies to tell her what else they would offer to help support a culture of wellness in her district.

The winning company agreed to meet all of the requirements. The machines are not turned on until 4:30 pm, long after school has ended. All the beverages meet the Alliance’s Guidelines and are caffeine-free. And the company gives the district an extra $5,000 per year to spend on promoting healthy choices, which it has used to purchase salad bars and marketing materials. Shelly also made sure that the RFP asked for a percent of the revenue, rather than the profit. “We did have principals who were worried about losing the revenue, but then they realized that our margin of revenue had increased. I haven’t heard any complaints since!”

By limiting snack food options, Shelly has been able to significantly ramp up participation in the school lunch program. “We made a la carte entrees the same price as the entire reimbursable meal so students quickly realized that it didn’t make sense to buy one item when you can have the same item with fruits, veggies, a trip to the salad bar and milk. It is all $2.  So now we have students taking more healthy foods because it is free and it has reduced the stigma around eating school lunch for everyone.”

The Outcome

Before Ohio Senate Bill 210 went into effect, school lunch participation in Cincinnati Public Schools was 46 percent in secondary schools. This year, it is at 67 percent for secondary schools. Shelly believes the correlation is clear. And the 7,000 additional reimbursable meals that are now provided each day bring much more money back to the district than the vending machines ever did.

In addition to the vending company becoming a key supporter in the district’s efforts, Shelly shared that having community partners (such as the children’s hospital, health department and local health foundation) at the table also asking for these changes made a difference. “Everyone came together to speak for school health and that made a big difference. It wasn’t just me,” she said.

Jessica’s Recipe for Success:

1)      Take stock of all sources of snack foods in the district and make a plan to improve them.

2)      Ask more of the vendor. Shelly sent out a RFP letting vendors know she wanted healthy snacks, accountability, a percent of revenue rather than profit, and a flat cash donation to the district each year.

3)      Look for ways to increase breakfast and lunch participation so the snack foods will not be missed. When students realized they could get one sandwich for the same price as a whole meal, buying the reimbursable lunch became the obvious choice.