Healthy Schools

School food reforms kick in this fall

More than 600 schools nationwide – but only one in Colorado – did what it took in the past year to meet the HealthierUS School Challenge requirements of expanded nutritional offerings and increased physical activity opportunities for students.

Kids at B.F. Kitchen Elementary School in Loveland get 30 minutes of physical education five days a week as part of the school's commitment to wellness.

That makes B.F. Kitchen Elementary in Loveland one of 1,250 U.S. schools to be honored so far in the two-year-old program.

The results were announced today during a conference call hosted by U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Kevin Concannon. The call was to highlight the historic school nutrition reforms and improvements students will see this year thanks to the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

Though the school challenge isn’t part of the legislation, it is a key component of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Initiative to end childhood obesity. Schools participating in the challenge voluntarily adopt USDA standards for food served at school, agree to provide nutrition education and provide more opportunities for physical activity.

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In Colorado, B.F. Kitchen Elementary School in Loveland received a Gold Award of Distinction, the highest-level rating in the challenge, in March. Concannon said that representatives from each of the award-winning schools will be invited to a White House dinner in October.

“Like the president said in his State of the Union address, if we want to win the future, we have to win the race to educate our children,” Concannon said. “That means no child should have to learn on an empty stomach.”

Legislation impacts many areas of school food

The historic legislation, which passed with rare bipartisan support, impacts everything from what kinds of foods and drinks children will be served in their school lunchrooms, to how much they’ll pay for it, to who will be allowed to eat for free or at a discount.

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The legislation will expand the availability of after-school meals this year, in essence providing dinner for an additional 140,000 low-income children. It also will promote expanded school breakfast programs, and makes it easier for some poor children to get free or reduced-price school meals.

Some of the more controversial provisions – which won’t go into effect this year – increase the nutritional standards for school meals. Schools will be required, for example, to offer both a fruit and a vegetable at lunchtime. They also would have to double the amount of fruit served at breakfast, as well as offer both a whole-grain and a protein product at the morning meal. Permitted sodium levels in the foods, meanwhile, would gradually decrease.

“Part of the reason for phasing in the lower sodium is because the food industry in general needs to change the sodium content of foods,” Concannon said. “This will also require some adjustment of the palate. We’re addicted to sodium in our food, even if we don’t realize it’s been added.”

Concannon said the USDA has received more than 130,000 comments on the proposed new nutrition guidelines, which are set to go into effect in 2012.

“A number of schools are implementing portions of it, but they’re not required to until the next school year,” he said. “This is going to be a reach, but we want it to be achievable.”

Federal funding increases now a question mark

Accompanying the increased nutritional standards is an increase in federal funding for school meals, the first in 30 years. Starting next year, schools will receive an additional 6 cents per meal served, adjusted annually for inflation.

But the increased funding was a promise made last year, before the debt ceiling crisis elicited Congressional promises to cut more than $1 trillion in spending over the next 10 years. Most of the cuts won’t take effect before 2014, but Concannon acknowledged the uncertainty.

“At this point, we don’t know what will happen in terms of the 2012 budget, but at this point we’re not suggesting schools alter course,” he said. “It’s pretty clear that this legislation is a priority for the White House, and it had bipartisan support in Congress. I know people know its importance to the schools.”

School nutrition viewed as national security issue

Also speaking during the telephone press conference was retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. D. Allen Youngman, co-author of some recent reports put out by Mission Readiness, a national security non-profit group led by retired military officers.

Those reports include “Too Fat to Fight,” which found that 27 percent of 17- to 24-year-olds in the United States are too fat to serve in the military, and “Ready, Willing and Unable,” which found that fully 75 percent of Americans 17 to 24 cannot join the military for one reason or another, including obesity or other health concerns, lack of a high school diploma, or because they have a criminal record.

“The class of 2023 started first grade this week,” Youngman said. “We’ll be trying to recruit them in about 12 years. If we don’t do some things differently, most of them won’t be eligible for military service.”

one hurdle down

Bill to ban corporal punishment in schools get first approval from Colorado House

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at the AXL Academy in Aurora worked in pairs or small groups to solve math problems.

Colorado’s House of Representatives gave initial approval Monday to a bill that would ban corporal punishment in public schools and day care centers that receive state funds.

The bill, sponsored by Denver Democrat Rep. Susan Lontine, would forbid adults from using physical harm as punishment for students.

“It’s not OK for adults to hit each other,” Lontine said. “It should not be OK for adults to hit children — ever.”

Colorado is one of 19 states that has not outlawed the practice. However, reported incidents of corporal punishment are rare.

That’s one reason why some Republicans who disavow corporal punishment still oppose the bill.

“We’ve heard there is not a problem,” said Minority Leader Rep. Patrick Neville, a Douglas County Republican. Schools are “already dealing with this. Let’s let our local school districts do what they’ve been doing.”

Lontine’s bill won bipartisan support from the House Education Committee. Given the Democrats’ wide majority in the House, the bill is expected to win final approval Tuesday. But it’s unclear what sort of reception the bill will receive in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Sen. Chris Holbert, a Douglas County Republican, said he hasn’t read the bill yet. But he said he is always concerned about education policy violating local school districts’ local control.

catching some zzzzs

One Colorado district moving toward later high school start times — maybe — while another shelves the idea

PHOTO: Chellseyy, Creative Commons

Of the two large Colorado school districts that were actively exploring later high school start times for the 2017-18 school year, one is moving ahead and one has dropped the idea for now.

The 55,000-student Cherry Creek district — the state’s fourth largest — continues to consider proposed start- and end-time changes at all school levels. While the district is still collecting community feedback, the current proposal would set elementary school start times at 7:55 a.m., middle school start times at 8:50 a.m. and high school start times at 8:15 a.m.

Currently, Cherry Creek elementary schools start about 9 a.m., middle schools start about 8 a.m. and high schools start about 7 am. A recommendation will go before the Cherry Creek school board this spring.

Meanwhile, the 31,000-student Boulder Valley school district won’t change school start times next year because of the complexity of managing school bus schedules and the prospect of higher transportation costs, district spokesman Briggs Gamblin wrote via email.

Changes are still possible for the 2018-19 school year if the district can find a way to keep transportation costs at their current levels, he wrote.

The push for later high school start times has gained steam nationally with increasing evidence that when school schedules match with teen sleep rhythms, students are healthier, more focused, attend school more regularly and do better academically. In the last two years, both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have come out in favor of start times of 8:30 a.m. or after.

In districts that have considered changing high school start times or actually changed them, the logistics of bus schedules and after-school sports are typically the biggest hurdles.

In Colorado, some smaller districts, including the Montezuma-Cortez district in southwest Colorado and the Harrison district in Colorado Springs, have pushed start times to 8:30 a.m. or after for some or all secondary schools.

But large districts have been slower to join the club. Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest school district, briefly explored later start times for some high schools a couple years ago, but the effort did not lead to any changes.

In the Boulder Valley district, a task force spent the 2015-16 school year researching later high school start times, with one of the group’s leaders saying last August she hoped the district could move forward with changes in 2017-18.

In Cherry Creek, where changes to school start and end times have also been under consideration over the last year, a November survey on the topic drew 25,000 responses.

Seventy-three percent of respondents said they wanted high school start times to align more closely to the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation. When respondents were asked to pick between six high school schedule scenarios, the 8 a.m.-3:30 p.m. scenario was most popular — garnering more than 7,000 votes.