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Local schools want to offer smarter food choices
Board wants to have healthier options for fundraisers also
Fair Street International Baccalaureate World School students check the frozen fruit and ice cream selection Friday after they finished their lunch. The frozen selections were changed recently in accordance with new USDA regulations. - photo by Tom Reed

September is National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, but Gainesville and Hall County school officials are working year-round to prevent the epidemic.

A statewide effort to encourage awareness and education about childhood obesity and healthy lifestyles is taking hold locally. City schools have adopted menus that reduce saturated fat and cholesterol.

Meanwhile, 24 Hall County schools have signed up with a nationwide initiative that helps schools become healthier.

"These are issues everywhere," said Gainesville City Schools Superintendent Merrianne Dyer.

In Georgia, a new standard for the alternative to Adequate Yearly Progress will include the number of students who have their Body Mass Index, height and weight tested as indicators for obesity.

The wellness policy for Gainesville City Schools was adopted in 2006 and revised in 2008. It complies with U.S. Department of Agriculture nutrition guidelines, Food Service Director Tiffany Lommel said.

"The biggest piece of that is it will have less than 10 percent saturated fat and less than 300 milligrams of cholesterol," she said.

When guidelines on food sales in schools changed, Dyer said schools had to examine the ice cream choices available to elementary students after lunch.

"There are things like popsicles with no nutritional value. Those things had to go," she said.

Hall County Schools' wellness policy promotes health education and USDA-compliant vending and school meals.

The county's food services management policy also addresses the issue of childhood obesity.

"The sale of competitive foods of minimal nutritional value as defined in USDA Food and Nutrition Service regulations is prohibited to students in grades K-8 from the beginning of the school day through the end of the lunch period," the policy states.

Hillary Savage, director of school nutrition and wellness for Hall County Schools, said the district-level wellness council is reviewing and evaluating other district and model policies to rewrite their existing protocols.

"Our plan is to hopefully submit an updated, revised policy to the board for approval this school year," Savage said in an email to The Times.

She said 24 Hall County schools signed up with the Healthy Schools Program of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation.

The alliance, founded in 2005 by the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation, is a group of parents, teachers, students, physicians and community leaders who are working nationwide to reduce childhood obesity by 2015.

The Healthy Schools Program provides ways to help schools become healthier ­— serving better quality meals, offering more nutritious vending machine options, conducting fundraising using fewer sweets, using good-for-you snacks at class parties and encouraging kids to eat better at home.

Savage said she wants the Hall schools already involved in the program to receive awards this year for their work.

Lommel said at the school level, physical education and health teachers do a lot to keep kids informed about exercise and nutrition. As for parents, she hopes to include tips and tricks in parent newsletters in the future.

She said students are encouraged to be active and eat snacks that keep them full for longer periods of time.

"From my standpoint, the snack program we manage, we provide some healthy food during the school day ­— 100 percent juice, fresh fruit, graham crackers, peanut butter crackers and Chex Mix," Lommel said. "We try for our snack program to stick to healthy guidelines."

Dyer said the stringent guidelines the USDA has for school breakfast and lunch mean these meet nutritional guidelines, but unless students eat snacks in an afterschool program, there's a high chance they're not receiving the same healthy food at home.

"I think it's a combination," Lommel said. "In some cases it's the economy, in some it's a lack of time and others it's a lack of education. There's a lot of people who feel if they're providing a snack at all, they're doing something good."

Dyer said Gainesville City Schools will focus on educating families about nutritional needs of snacks — having them include juice, water and fresh fruit, for example.

"The data we've gathered bears that out. They're just not eating wisely in the home. That's due to a lot of things — the economy, busy schedules making people buy fast food and with both parents working, older siblings have to get dinner together which can be less healthy," Dyer said.

There are vending machines in Gainesville City schools, but they're either only available to teachers or only before and after school to reduce kids eating less-healthy food during the school day.

"If students purchase from vending machines, that's a parental thing," Dyer said. "Often people will criticize elementary students for having 50 cents for ice cream, but again it's a parental thing, whether they have the money to do that or not."

Some after-school events and fundraisers do sell less-healthy items, but Dyer said school board members are hoping to change that.

Various clubs and organizations sponsor concession sales for athletic events. Traditionally, concessions bring to mind hotdogs, hamburgers, popcorn and candy.

"We encourage all the people to include nutritional options people can have for dinner, since most of these events happen during those hours," Dyer said. "Often these are chicken sandwiches or pizza, which if you have the right kind, can be a healthy option."