The sweetest thing

Charlottesville’s School Health Advisory Board (SHAB) is trying to improve nutrition in schools by limiting the amount of sugar, as well as sodium and hydrogenated oils, in students’ lunches and snacks. To that end, SHAB—a group that guides the School Board on matters of student health—has significantly revised the school district’s 2006 Wellness Policy, and proposed a new, longer list of wellness regulations.

Sweet surrender: Holding four cups of sugar, Ivana Kadija, chair of Charlottesville’s School Health Advisory Board, says students aren’t dogs, and shouldn’t be rewarded with unhealthy food.

“We took the current Wellness Policy and essentially scrapped it,” says Ivana Kadija, SHAB chair and parent of two city school students. “Instead of only focusing on physical activity and food, this [new] Wellness Policy actually addresses, very holistically, all of the different aspects in the school environment where we can impact the health of the children and the staff.”

However, the overhaul has some folks sweet and others sour. While SHAB’s revised policy proposes a yet-to-be-determined “limit” on sugar, hundreds of local citizens are in favor of banning sugar entirely.

Kadija recently circulated a petition that called for the School Board to restrict entirely, rather than limit, sugars in city schools. More than 750 people, including a majority of City Council and multiple school board members, have currently signed the petition.

“[Sugar] is in the lunch, it’s in the breakfast, it’s in the snacks, it’s in the classrooms,” says Kadija. “Kids are already receiving plenty of sugar in America…the school should not be contributing to this.” She adds that “the word ‘limited’ means nothing.”

Barbara Yager, dietician and chair of the Community Obesity Task Force, applauds efforts to curb using food as rewards, but does not believe restricting sugars is an ideal proposal.

“I think it’s unrealistic to restrict all sugar, because of the financial constraints on city children,” says Yager. “For $1.23 a meal, this [restriction] would be burdensome and almost impossible.”

Yager adds that, while the revised Wellness Policy differentiates between types of sugars, the petition does not. Sugar comes in many forms, says Yager—from the fructose found in fruits and vegetables to the lactose found in milk. In the revised policy, sugar “refers to anything containing fructose such as, but not limited to, sucrose [table sugar], high fructose corn syrup and commercially processed juice.”

The updated Wellness Policy would also stock lunch lines with fresh fruits and vegetables, and meals cooked from scratch. Foods sold in vending machines and school stores will be “minimally processed,” defined in the policy as containing “no more than four ingredients.” Other measures would replace current classroom snacks with fruits and vegetables and would limit classroom birthday celebrations to one per month.

And while “food rewards” are frowned upon in the current policy, they would be banned entirely in the new proposal. The current policy, last reviewed in 2008, says that the school division will promote “rewards that don’t involve candy or sweets.” According to the new policy, food rewards “shall not be used on school grounds, at school outings, or in vehicles licensed to transport students.”

“We are not raising dogs, we are raising children,” says Kadija. “If you want to reward them with something, there are plenty of other cheap alternatives, like stickers.”

The Wellness Policy will bolster current initiatives to bring produce into the city schools—a move that coincides with national attention to childhood obesity and related health issues. According to First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign, about one in three children is either overweight or obese. The average American now eats about 15 more pounds of sugar than their counterparts in 1970.

Accordingly, city schools have already introduced plans for a plant-based and cooked-from-scratch school lunch. The first recipe, a black bean and brown rice taco, proved a success among students, and may join weekly school lunch menus next fall.

“They are going to start incorporating [plant-based and fresh meals] a lot more in the menus,” says school board member Juandiego Wade, who adds that the entire board supports healthy meals in city schools.

Yager praises the School Board for using general funds to buy local, fresh fruit and vegetables from the city’s Local Food Hub. “I think the School Board is fully aligned with trying to improve the quality of the schools’ food,” she says.

However, adds Yager, “I do think it’s possible to limit sugar. And I think the work of SHAB next year will be to talk about how to set those limits.” The School Board is slated to vote on the updated Wellness Policy this summer.