Soda stand

Will diet soda be allowed back in Colorado high schools?

After a seven-year ban, diet soda would get the green light to return to high school vending machines if the State Board of Education approves proposed changes to state beverage rules next month.

Education department officials say they are making the recommendation to align Colorado rules with new federal rules and reduce schools’ regulatory burden.

But a host of health-minded organizations are pushing back against the proposal, saying the state was ahead of the curve when it launched a policy banning soda and diet soda from schools in 2009 and is now poised to give a drink laced with artificial sweeteners a new toehold among teens.

“We just think our state has already done great work on this and it doesn’t make sense to roll it back,” said Leslie Levine, technical assistance and research manager at the advocacy group Livewell Colorado.

The proposed beverage rules, which the State Board will consider at its Aug. 10 meeting in Grand Junction, grew out of a regular review of state policies, officials said. If approved, they would take effect by the 2017-18 school year at the latest.

Even if the State Board gives the go-ahead for diet soda in high schools, individual districts could decide not to stock the drinks.

Beverage rules

Still, critics of the proposed rules worry about dangling unhealthy beverages in front of students and tempting cash-strapped schools with the promise of new soft drink revenue.

Diet soda, though low in calories, has no nutritional value, harms teeth and diverts students from drinking healthier beverages like water, they argue.

“Allowing diet soda in schools just provides an unnecessary marketing opportunity to an industry that has fueled the obesity epidemic, and the tooth decay epidemic, I might add,” said Wyatt Hornsby, campaign director for Delta Dental Of Colorado Foundation.

The foundation is among more than a dozen groups ranging from health advocacy organizations to the Colorado PTA that have signed a letter urging State Board members to reconsider the diet soda proposal.

Colorado’s Healthy Beverage policy, originally passed by the State Board of Education in 2008, includes numerous provisions governing the type, size and calorie count of beverages allowed in schools outside of the federally regulated school meal program.

At the time, there were no federal rules governing such beverages, but that changed in 2014 when preliminary federal rules—called Smart Snacks in Schools standards—were approved. Just last week, the United States Department of Agriculture released the final version of the those rules.

Opponents of Colorado’s proposed rule changes say the federal rules represent the lowest bar states must clear, and don’t prevent stronger state-level policies.

“This is Colorado,” said Hornsby. “We pride ourselves on being the healthiest state in the nation so we need to aim higher.”

The current proposal to relax the beverage rules for the K-12 system comes just six months after Colorado significantly tightened beverage rules for kids in child care—banning all soda, flavored milks and sports drinks, and allowing 100 percent fruit juice just twice a week.

To some advocates, the conflicting efforts are perplexing.

But there’s also widespread recognition that many high-schoolers already have the independence and purchasing power to buy any sweet drink they want at the corner store.

School district officials have varying opinions on the proposed changes.

Ann Cooper, Boulder’s food service director, said via email she doesn’t think two sets of beverage guidelines—one federal and one state— would be onerous for districts. She also said diet soda shouldn’t be allowed in schools.

Kara Sample, assistant director of nutrition services in Weld County District 6, supports aligning Colorado’s Healthy Beverage policy to federal rules. She likened Colorado’s rules to an onion, with several layers of requirements that can be confusing to vendors and school district personnel.

Still, she said she was saddened that diet soda is allowable under the federal rules and that she’d be happy with a prohibition on diet soda in the new Colorado rules if that was one of the only major differences from federal rules.

Below are public comments on the proposed changes to the Healthy Beverage Policy. The education department recommends written comments be received by August 3, but will accept them up to and during the day of the State Board hearing.

Not long for this world

Denver teen pregnancy prevention organization to close its doors at the end of the year

PHOTO: freestocks.org

A Denver-based nonprofit focused on teen pregnancy prevention and youth sexual health will close its doors at the end of 2017 after losing two major grants.

Andrea Miller, executive director of Colorado Youth Matter, announced the news in an email to supporters Monday afternoon.

The organization, begun in the 1980s as a volunteer-run group, provides teacher training and assistance in picking sex education curricula for 10 to 25 Colorado school district a year.

Miller said she’s hopeful other organizations will pick up where Colorado Youth Matter leaves off — possibly RMC Health, the Responsible Sex Education Institute of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains or the state-run Colorado Sexual Health Initiative.

Colorado Youth Matter’s biggest financial hit came in July when federal officials announced the end of a major teen pregnancy prevention grant mid-way through the five-year grant cycle. That funding made up three-quarters of Colorado Youth Matter’s $1 million annual budget.

“It feels like we’re getting cut off at the knees,” Miller said.

About the same time, the organization lost a family foundation grant that made up another 10 percent of its budget.

Miller, who took the helm of the organization just 10 months ago, said one of her primary goals was to diversify funding, but there wasn’t enough time.

Miller said with a variety of factors playing into the state’s teen pregnancy rates, which have been at record lows in recent years, it’s hard to say what the impact of the organization’s dissolution will be.

She said Colorado Youth Matter has worked successfully with school districts with different political leanings to find the right policies and resources to address the sexual health of their students.

“We have been masters at meeting the school districts where they are,” she said.

Wanna go outside?

Less plastic, more trees: New effort seeks to reinvent preschool playgrounds and capture kids’ imaginations

This play structure at Step By Step Child Development Center in Northglenn will go away under a plan to create a more natural and engaging outdoor play space.

Michelle Dalbotten, the energetic director of a Northglenn child care center called Step by Step, doesn’t like her playground.

Sure, it’s spacious, with a high privacy fence bordering an adjacent strip mall parking lot. It’s also got a brightly colored play structure surrounded by lots of spongy rubber mulch.

But Dalbotten and her staff have long noticed that the kids get bored there. They clump together in the small shady area or on a few popular pieces of equipment. Sometimes, they start throwing trucks off the play structure or shoving their friends down the slide.

Something about it just doesn’t work.

Recently, Dalbotten found a solution in the form of a new grant program called the ECHO initiative, which aims to reinvent more than 100 preschool and child care playgrounds across Colorado over the next few years. Think mud kitchens, looping tricycle trails, vegetable gardens, stages, shady reading nooks and dump truck construction zones.

The idea is to create outdoor spaces that capture kids’ imagination, connect them with nature and keep them active in every season. Such efforts grow out of a recognition in the education field that healthy habits start early and boost learning.

The current preschool playground at Step by Step is covered by rubber mulch.

Step by Step staff members had talked many times about their stagnant play space. But it was hard to envision anything different until they attended a design workshop with experts from ECHO, a partnership between the National Wildlife Federation, Qualistar Colorado and the Natural Learning Initiative at North Carolina State University.

“We knew we were missing the boat somewhere because (the children) weren’t super-engaged and we had a lot of behavioral issues,” Dalbotten said. “But we just couldn’t see past it, I guess.”

For child care providers, it’s a common challenge, said Sarah Konradi, ECHO program director with the regional office of the National Wildlife Federation

“This is a very new idea to a lot of folks,” she said. “It’s hard to sort out as a layperson.”

ECHO, borne out of a decade of research from the Natural Learning Initiative, will hand out $355,000 in grants over the next three years. The initiative prioritizes centers that serve children from low-income families or other vulnerable populations.

Fourteen centers — Step by Step and Wild Plum Learning Center in Longmont are the first two — will get $10,000 awards for serving as demonstration sites willing to host visits for other Colorado providers.

Leaders at Step by Step say kids and teachers often congregate in the limited shady spots.

Around 100 other centers will receive ECHO’s $5,000 seed grants and expert assistance to revamp their outdoor spaces.

Such transformations can have a big impact on children who may spend thousands of hours a year at such centers, said Nilda Cosco, director of programs at the Natural Learning Initiative.

“When we do a renovation of the outdoor learning environments as we call them — not playgrounds — we see increased physical activity … more social interactions among children … less altercations,” she said.

“The teachers have to do less because the children are so engaged. There is so much to do.”

ECHO, which stands for Early Childhood Health Outdoors, is the latest iteration of a program Cosco started a decade ago called “Preventing Obesity by Design.” That effort revamped outdoor space at about 260 child care centers in North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas.

Cosco said such makeovers can ”prevent obesity by counteracting sedentary lifestyles. Children walk more, exercise more, are conversant with healthy eating strategies.”

Dalbotten and her staff have big plans for their play areas, which sit behind a plaza that houses a bingo hall, Dollar Tree and Big D’s Liquor store. They’ll get rid of the colorful play structure and the rubber mulch in favor of a more natural look. There will be trees, shrubs, small grassy hills and a winding trail leading to a wide array of activity areas.

This porch will get new lighting, fencing and foliage to make it a more attractive outdoor space at Step by Step.

The center’s smaller toddler playground will get a similar reboot and its tiny yard for babies — mostly bare except for a couple low-hanging shade sails — will be expanded to include a shaded deck where teachers can sit or play with babies. A barren concrete porch on the side of the building will be remade into a cozy activity area decorated with bird houses, planter gardens and butterfly-attracting foliage.

At the recent design workshop Dalbotten attended, ECHO leaders displayed photos from other centers around the country that have gone through outdoor transformations. She saw one that stuck with her.

“There were kids everywhere,” she said. “It was super cool looking. I was like, ‘Oh look, we can be that. We can have kids everywhere.’”

PHOTO: Natural Learning Initiative
The play space at Johnson Pond Learning Center in Fuquay-Varina, NC, after a makeover.
PHOTO: Natural Learning Initiative
The outdoor play space at Spanish For Fun Academy in Chapel, Hill, NC, after a makeover.