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.

Kids eat free

Colorado could expand lunch subsidy to high school students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Bernadette Cole serves food to students at Prairie View High School in Brighton.

When Colorado expanded a school lunch subsidy to middle school students, the number of sixth- through eighth-graders eating lunch at school went up in districts across the state.

Twenty-sixth percent more middle school students ate lunch at school in the Greeley-Evans district, where a majority of students live in poverty, but even in the more affluent Littleton district in Denver’s south suburbs, 11 percent more middle school students ate lunch.

For school nutritionists and children’s advocates, these kinds of results make the case for extending this same lunch subsidy to high school students.

“We know the co-pay is a barrier because of the large uptick in participation when it goes away,” said Erin Miller, vice president of health initiatives for the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

The “co-pay” is the 40 cents per meal that families who qualify for reduced-price lunch — but who make too much money to qualify for free lunch — are responsible for. The federal government picks up most of the cost for these lunches, and since 2008, Colorado has covered the 40 cents for the youngest students, rendering those lunches free to their families. This program has gradually expanded, reaching middle school students in legislation passed last year.

A bill that passed out of the House Education Committee Thursday would cover the 40-cent cost difference for high school students, a longtime goal of advocates.

“The state of Colorado has been trying to ensure that kids in poverty have access to food for a decade,” said Danielle Bock, nutrition services director for the Greeley-Evans district and a public policy and legislative consultant with the Colorado School Nutrition Association. “This is the final step.”

Miller said hunger affects children in school not just academically but also emotionally, with hunger even associated with higher suicide rates. Advocates have pushed to expand the state subsidy because participation in school lunch goes down as children get older, even as their caloric needs go up.

Currently, households that earn less than 130 percent of the federal poverty level, or $32,630 for a family of four, qualify for free lunch through the federal program. Families who earn between 130 and 185 percent of the federal poverty limit, or up to $46,435 for a family of four, qualify for a reduced-price lunch. It’s children from that second category families who will benefit if this bill becomes law.

Bock said the vast majority of school food service agencies in Colorado have unpaid lunch debt that, under federal law, they can’t just write off. School districts either pick up the costs out of their general fund or try to collect from parents, which sometimes leads to the controversial practice of “lunch shaming,” in which schools serve less nutritious and appealing alternative lunches to students whose parents owe money.

Lawmakers started out wanting to ban lunch-shaming, but school nutritionists convinced them it would be better to have the state cover some of the extra lunch cost for families who are struggling to make ends meet.

When Denver ended the practice of serving “alternative” meals to families who hadn’t paid for lunch, the amount of lunch debt skyrocketed, with a large portion of it coming from families who had not signed up for subsidized lunches and might have the means to pay.

According to a fiscal analysis, Colorado plans to spend $2.2 million on lunch subsidies this school year. Expanding the program to high school students would cost an additional $464,000 next year, with that money going into school food service budgets.

pass the microphone

This Memphis senior was kicked out of three high schools. Here’s how he got on track to graduate.

PHOTO: Gillian Wenhold, The Social Exchange
Despite what John Chatman calls a “really tough childhood” where he was often left on his own, he’s on track to graduate from alternative school G.W. Carver College and Career Academy this year.

In front of more than 100 people, John Chatman recalled the bullying he endured as a child for having a stutter.

Chatman was one of seven educators and students who took the mic at Chalkbeat’s February story storytelling night. The stories centered around school discipline practices, a topic we recently covered in this special report.

“Growing up in the area I grew up in, it’s hard to deal with that,” said the 18-year-old. “You’re an outcast. … It made me hate school, because I never could enjoy it. I may answer a question and stutter, [and other students would] get to laughing and cracking jokes.”

Kids stopped making fun of him in middle school when Chatman became a star middle school football player in Memphis — but the prestige that came with playing football disappeared when he was injured on the field.

“I took my injuries and replaced them with the streets,” Chatman said. “Throughout my ninth-grade year, I was starting to lose myself. … By 11th grade, I didn’t know who I even was.”

During that period, Chatman said he was kicked out of three high schools and eventually wound up at G.W. Carver College and Career Academy, an alternative school for expelled students, housed in former Carver High School.

“This school changed my life forever, Chatman said.

To hear more about how Chatman’s life changed, watch the video (or read the excerpt) below.

The storytelling night was hosted by Chalkbeat Tennessee, Spillit, and The Knowledge Tree. The video was filmed by Gillian Wenhold for The Social Exchange, a pay-as-you-can public relations and content creation firm for nonprofits, and businesses owned by women and people of color.

My 11th-grade year was the time I decided I had to change. The change was when I finally got kicked out of school. Well, I’d been kicked out of school but this was the kick-out-of-school that kicked me in my back real hard and said you only have one strike left. If you mess this up, this is it. It’s over with. You’re not going to see the light of day. Due to that, I ended up going to Northeast, and it still didn’t get better. In fact, I’m going to tell y’all the transitions of my schools. It started at ninth grade at Central, couldn’t come back to Central and I had to go to East , got kicked out of East and went to Northeast. Got kicked out of Northeast and now I’m back at Carver.

I’ll tell y’all, this school changed my life forever. I wouldn’t be here right now if it wasn’t for that school. It happened like this. There was a guy named Roger. We used to run together during the same time period. …

[During a presentation of past Carver graduates], an image of Roger popped up clear on the screen. It wasn’t up for nothing bad, he was on the road to making a six-figure [salary]. I was like, ‘This was the same person I used to shoot dice with?’… Now he’s living a life and I’m stuck here. I’m still doing the same stuff I’ve been doing and not getting no different result, and that’s called insanity… I took it, and I told myself if he can do it, I know I can.

Spillit, storytelling
PHOTO: Xzavier Bonds
Chatman speaks to a packed room during Chalkbeat’s storytelling event.