The Other 60 Percent

Healthy vending snacks on the rise

Jamie Marrufo, a senior at Greeley West High School, noticed right away that the vending machine in the student commons looked a little different when she got back from winter break.

One of the new vending machines offering healthier snacks in the Weld School District 6.

“I was like, ‘Where are the Snickers?’”

They were gone.

So were the rest of the candy bars as well as the fried potato and corn chips. In their place were baked chips, honey wheat pretzels, Chex Mix, beef jerky, granola bars, and pouches of trail mix, peanuts, almonds and sunflower seeds. The change was part of a district-wide vending machine makeover intended to offer snacks lower in fat, sugar and calories.

Although Marrufo, who buys snacks from the machine about twice a week, loves Snickers bars, she likes the new vending machine choices too.

“It’s healthy food,” she said. “I think it’s good.”

Her friend Aimee Veenendaal, a junior who doesn’t like candy, also approved of the changes.

“I actually like it because that’s basically what I eat…the healthier stuff.”

Weld County School District 6 launched the new snack vending program in early January with the help of a $157,329 grant from the Colorado Health Foundation. The grant paid for the district’s 16 food vending machines, a vending truck, the salary of a district vending employee for one year and marketing materials to promote the new program.

Jenna Schiffelbein, the district’s wellness specialist, said the impetus for the switch was feedback from a district-wide wellness assessment in 2011-12. With the exception of some nut products, the new vending snacks, which are accessible to students only at the district’s four high schools, all adhere to the district’s standards on fat and sugar content. In addition, each snack is coded with a red, yellow or green sticker indicating that, nutritionally speaking,  it is “good,” “better,” or “best.”

The district has not changed the contents of its beverage vending machines as part of the new program, though Schiffelbein said that may come later. Currently, beverage machines in all Colorado districts are regulated by the state’s Healthy Beverages Policy standards, which prohibit soda from being sold to students.

Healthy vending programs increasing

Weld District 6 is part of a growing group of Colorado districts that have slimmed down their vending machine snacks in recent years. While there is no hard data on the number of districts that have launched healthy vending programs, school nutrition leaders agree that more and more districts are heading in this direction.

Denver Public Schools and Jeffco Public Schools launched healthy vending programs several years ago, Boulder Valley joined the club last year, and Adams 12 is currently in the process of making the switch.

Jane Brand, director of the Colorado Department of Education’s Office of School Nutrition, said a variety of factors have driven the change, including the USDA’s updated nutrition standards for school meals, which took effect last fall, and its new, long-awaited “Smart Snacks in Schools” proposal, which came out Feb. 1.

Greater awareness about health and wellness in schools and high-profile initiatives such as Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign have also contributed to the push for healthier vending snacks, she said.

Naomi Steenson, director of Nutrition Services and Before and After School Enrichment in Adams 12, said, “It’s the right thing to do for the kids.”

The Jeffco experience

In Jeffco Public Schools, the largest district in the state, the vending program was revamped with healthier food in 2007-08 after a state audit found the district in violation of the federally-mandated “Competitive Foods” rule barring vending items from being sold when school meals are served. Linda Stoll, executive director of Food and Nutrition Services, said the district’s vending machines were supposed to be on timers that would disable them at the appropriate times, but because they lacked the technology the machines were always on.

As a result of the violation, the district launched a new vending bid process, specifying nutrition guidelines from the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, an organization focused on reducing childhood obesity. The guidelines use a common rule called the “35-10-35” standard, which stipulates that no more than 35 percent of a snack’s total calories can be from fat, no more than 10 percent can be from saturated and trans fat, and no more than 35 percent of a snack’s weight can be from sugar. Boulder Valley also uses these guidelines while Weld 6 uses a slightly stricter “30-10-35” standard.

In addition to a version of the 35-10-35 standard, some districts opt for additional parameters. For example, Boulder Valley also bans vending fare with non-nutritive sweeteners, hydrogenated or trans fat, artificial dyes, additives or preservatives. Jeffco prohibits high fructose corn syrup.

Not all snacks that met the letter of Jeffco’s standards were approved by Stoll. She vetoed MoonPies because she believed they were unhealthy though somehow they met the guidelines.

Stoll said she hopes the changes, which affected students in 17 high schools, have encouraged students to make healthier food choices.

“I’m sure kids miss Flamin’ Hot Cheetos but I haven’t heard a lot of complaints,” she said.

Impact on sales

While many food service directors expect some decline in sales after switching to healthier vending fare, it’s hard to quantify since individual schools often manage the day-to-day details of vending machines.

A vending machine containing healthier snacks at Greeley West High School.

At Fairview High School in Boulder, sales have dropped about 44 percent since new healthier vending snacks were introduced last winter. Still, school treasurer Ronda Pendergrass said the decrease may have nothing to do with a lack of interest in healthier choices. Instead, she believes it’s because the old machines weren’t properly programmed to be disabled during the school’s lunch periods until a few months into the 2011-12 school year. Thus, they racked up more sales than they should have.

Vending proceeds at Fairview benefit the athletics program, paying for sports equipment, signing parties for college-bound student athletes and some scholarships, said Pendergrass.

In Weld District 6, Nutrition Services Director Jeremy West said with the new vending selection in place, “Sales may dip a little bit. We do not have candy bars in there. We do not have gummy worms in there.”

Ultimately, West’s goal is for the new vending program is to break even, fully supporting itself after the grant funding is gone. Under the new program, 15 percent of vending sales will return to the schools that house the machines and 85 percent will go to the nutrition services department.

Ann Cooper, director of nutrition services for Boulder Valley School District (and an expert on EdNews Parent), said she’s not concerned about whether sales have dropped since the district switched to healthier vending items last winter.

“Our job is to serve kids full, healthy lunches…how much money we bring in in vending is not the priority.”

Proposed USDA rules on school snacks

The United States Department of Agriculture unveiled proposed new rules on Friday that would ban many sweet, fatty snacks and sugary beverages from school vending machines, snack bars and a la carte lunch lines. The “Smart Snacks in School” proposal features nutrition standards for “competitive foods,” which are food items offered in schools outside the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs. The creation of such standards was required by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The proposed standards, which are based on recommendations from the Institute of Medicine, won’t take effect until 2014.

Chilling effect

Five ways a proposed immigration rule could impact Colorado students and schools

PHOTO: JGI/Jamie Grill | Getty Images

Advocates for immigrant families fear that a proposed federal rule governing green card decisions could lead to more children going hungry and losing housing and health care. That, in turn, could pose challenges for educators and schools.

The proposed rule would allow the government to penalize some legal immigrants who have used public benefits by denying them permanent residency — a possibility that could prompt families to forgo any kind of government help. For children in those families, many of them citizens, the result could be hunger pangs, untreated illness, or outsized worry that their parents won’t be able to stay in the U.S. Inside schools, the new rule could mean more time and energy spent addressing students’ basic needs and the loss of funding from some public programs.

Fear that immigrants will shy away from benefit programs is nothing new. Stricter immigration rules since President Trump took office — stepped-up raids, efforts to discontinue the DACA program, and family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border — have already led to a chilling effect on the legal use of public benefits by immigrants. Advocates say changes to the so-called “public charge” rule will only exacerbate the problem.

The rationale behind the proposed rule, a stricter version of one that’s been in place for years, is to prevent immigration by people who will end up dependent on government help. Opponents of the rule say it punishes working-class immigrants who may need short-term aid, but contribute much more to the country’s economy over the long term.

The existing public charge rule penalizes immigrants for using programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or long-term care. The proposed version adds several more to the list, including Medicaid, food stamps, and housing vouchers. Free and reduced-price school meals aren’t included in the existing or proposed rule.

Mónica Parra, program manager of the Denver school district’s migrant education program, said families she works with are reluctant to sign up for any kind of help, even assistance heating their homes during the winter.

“They’d rather struggle or find other ways to get support,” she said. “It’s going to be very challenging to keep students motivated, but also safe. Maybe they’re going to be cold. Maybe they’re going to get sick.”

The proposed public charge rule doesn’t apply to refugees and asylum-seekers, and doesn’t penalize immigrants for public benefits used by their children. Still, like other advocates, Parra said she hears anxiety about the proposed rule from all kinds of immigrants, including citizens and those who already hold green cards.

They worry that using public benefits could get their own legal status revoked or hurt their chances to sponsor family members who want to immigrate to the U.S.

“The fear has always been there in these communities,” she said. “Now, people are even more afraid.”

The new public charge rule likely won’t take effect for months. First, there will be a 60-day public comment period, scheduled to start Wednesday, and then Trump administration officials will consider the comments and decide whether to make any adjustments.

Here’s a look at some of the ways the proposed rule could affect Colorado schools and students.

More kids come to school hungry

There are at least two ways schools could see more hungry students walking through their doors due to the public charge rule. First, families may be afraid to take advantage of food stamps — either by deciding not to enroll, or by dis-enrolling current recipients, such as citizen children.

Both Denver and Adams counties have seen dips in the number of people participating in the program over the last couple years. In Denver, about 2,000 fewer children receive the benefit now than in November 2016 when President Trump was elected. However, city officials caution that it’s hard to make a direct connection between falling participation and federal immigration policies since historically low unemployment rates may also be contributing to the trend.

While free and discounted school lunches are not part of the public charge rule, some advocates report that immigrant parents have been wary of enrolling their kids since Trump’s election. By law, public schools must serve students regardless of their immigration status and can’t ask for information regarding a family’s or student’s status.

A week after the Department of Homeland Security released a draft of the new public charge rule on its website, the Eagle County school district emailed parents asking them to help squash the rumor that signing children up for free or reduced-lunches “will inform ICE,” a reference to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

The letter concluded, “There is NO RISK in applying for free and reduced lunch, help us spread the word.”

So, what happens when kids go to school hungry? They may have trouble paying attention, misbehave more easily, or suffer from headaches or stomach aches. In short, less learning.

More children without health insurance, more student absences

The public charge rule’s chilling effect could have a major impact on child health, according to a recent Colorado Health Institute analysis. An estimated 48,000 Colorado children — the vast majority of them citizens — could be disenrolled from one of two public health insurance programs, Medicaid or Child Health Plan Plus. That would double the state’s rate of uninsured children from 3 percent to 6.7 percent, according to the institute.

The reason for so much dropoff is that health insurance is typically a family affair. So even when different rules govern adults and children in the same family, they tend to be enrolled as a group or not at all.

When students don’t have health insurance, school attendance and performance can suffer. For example, children may be absent more if they lack help managing chronic conditions like asthma, or if they’re not getting treatment for acute illnesses or painful dental problems.

Loss of health-related funding for schools and school-based clinics

School districts stand to lose two health-related funding streams if the number of uninsured children swells. The first would impact the state’s 62 school-based health clinics, which would likely see a drop in Medicaid and Child Health Plan Plus reimbursements if fewer students enroll in those programs.

Such an enrollment decline, which some clinic leaders have already reported, could make it harder for school-based clinics to stay afloat financially, said Bridget Beatty, executive director of the Colorado Association for School-Based Health Care.

With more uninsured students, “The need will go up,” she said, “but conversely the ability to financially sustain them will get more challenging.” 

In addition, 53 Colorado school districts receive funding through a program that could be affected by the proposed public charge rule. It’s called the School Health Services Program and allows districts to seek Medicaid reimbursements for services provided to low-income students with disabilities. That money can be used for health-related efforts that benefit all students, such as the addition of school nurses, wellness coordinators, or suicide prevention programs.

Funding received through the program ranges from a couple thousand dollars in small districts to a few million in large districts.

High-poverty schools have a harder time offering universal free meals

Nearly 40,000 students in 20 Colorado school districts can eat school meals for free because their schools participate in a federal program designed to make breakfast and lunch easily accessible to low-income students. But that number could drop if the public charge rule decreases food stamp participation.

The special meal program, called Community Eligibility Provision, is open to schools or districts where at least 40 percent of students come from families that use certain public benefits, including food stamps or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Unlike in traditional school lunch programs, parents don’t have to fill out applications for free or reduced-price meals.

“Any time when you have eligible families not participating in SNAP, it does have a negative impact on community eligibility,” said Crystal FitzSimons, director of school programs at the national nonprofit Food Research and Action Center.

Even if schools or districts remain eligible for the program, a drop in students getting public benefits could mean a change in how schools are reimbursed for the free meals, she said. That, in turn, could make the program less financially viable for schools or districts to participate.

Immigrants could turn away from publicly funded early childhood programs

Crystal Munoz, who heads the nonprofit Roots Family Center in southwest Denver, worries that the Spanish-speaking families her program serves will stop using programs like Head Start, state child care subsidies, and the Denver Preschool Program, which provides tuition assistance to the city’s 4-year-olds.

Even though those programs aren’t part of the proposed rule, there’s still trepidation, she said. It’s because of the constant flurry of rule changes and the generally negative tone around immigration right now.

“We find ourselves very afraid to even give out resources or referrals to certain programs because we’re not sure,” she said. “For us, it’s waiting and seeing.”

She said if families do drop out of Head Start or other child care programs, it could push children — many of them citizens — into unlicensed care with relatives or neighbors, or force parents to cut back work hours to stay at home with them.

The Other 60 Percent

Too young to vote, Memphis teens lead voter-engagement campaign in advance of midterms

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Caitlin Brinson (left), Christian Fuentes, and Aaliyah James lead a breakout session with fellow students on youth and education.

At 17, Caitlin Brinson isn’t yet old enough to vote, but she’s working hard to get other Memphis residents to the polls in November.

The Cordova High School school senior is active in a new youth initiative called Engage Memphis, which aims to increase voter turnout and to educate young future voters on issues that affect their lives, such as school discipline, sexual assault and harassment policies, and diversity in schools.

“It’s difficult not to have input on decisions that affect us directly,” Caitlin said. “It can feel powerless, like you can’t change things at your school or in local government, but I’m a pretty optimistic person. I really believe we can make an impact if we come together and help people around us see why who they vote for directly impacts us.”

Caitlin was one of more than 300 Memphis students from 40 schools who gathered earlier this month at a forum held by BRIDGES and Facing History and Ourselves. Those two local student leadership groups joined forces to create Engage Memphis.

One of the goals of the youth forum was to grow Engage Memphis into a citywide effort, said Marti Tippens Murphy, the Memphis executive director for Facing History. Ahead of the November midterm elections, students involved with BRIDGES and Facing History gathered for a series of lectures and breakout sessions. One of the goals was to help teens decide what they wanted their initiative to look like.

“Students came up with the strategy to focus on re-engaging people who can vote but haven’t yet,” Tippens Murphy said. “That often looks like a parent, grandparent or older sibling. They’re now having conversations with those people and connecting voting to issues that affect them.”

When it comes to voter participation, Tennessee has a long way to go. More than 838,000 adult Tennesseans are not registered to vote. The state ranks 40th in the nation in voter registration and last in voter turnout, according to The Tennessean. So the teenagers of Engage Memphis are trying to correct course.

“We’ll hear students say, ‘I’m only 16 and hadn’t thought issues around voting applied to me,” Tippens Murphy said. “We see this as leading students to prioritize voting when they become old enough. We know the youngest demographic is the lowest in voter turnout. But it doesn’t have to be that way.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A recent Harvard Institute of Politics poll of America’s 18- to 29-year-olds found a spike in the number of young Americans who said they will “definitely be voting’ in the upcoming midterm Congressional elections.”

Caitlin said she’s seen a large amount of excitement around voting among her peers. That’s reflected nationally, too. A recent Harvard Institute of Politics poll of America’s 18- to 29-year-olds found a spike in the number of young Americans who said they will “definitely be voting’ in the upcoming midterm Congressional elections.”

Morgan Fentress, a 10th grader at Immaculate Conception Cathedral School, said that while she originally attended last week’s forum because it meant a day off from school, the gathering inspired her to get involved in earnest.

“I hear people talk about voting in terms of getting out to the polls and making sure your voice is heard, but we’re not told or taught what we should be voting for, what the issues are we should care about,” Morgan said. “I wish modern politics were taught more in school. But coming here and hearing what issues other students are passionate about, it’s been really good.”