According to the Centers for Disease Control, obesity rates among children and adolescents have tripled over the last two decades. The federal agency says 17 percent of American children are obese. Locally it’s worse — 27.7 percent in Poughkeepsie, 24.7 percent in Kingston and 22.5 percent in Saugerties for middle and high school students, and 23.5 percent for elementary students in Saugerties, according to the most recent numbers from the state Department of Health.
Several federal programs have been implemented to improve the nutrition of food served in school cafeterias and vending machines. The latest is this year’s Smart Snacks in Schools initiative, which sets limits on the fat, calorie, sugar and sodium contents of the snacks — specifically, snacks must contain at most 200 calories, with no more than 35 percent of those calories coming from sugar or fat. For saturated fat, the ceiling is 10 percent. Trans fats are forbidden and sodium is limited. Snacks must contain at least 50 percent whole grains, or have whole grains, fruits, vegetables, dairy or protein listed as the first ingredient, and have at least 10 percent of a required vitamin.
Junior-Senior High School Principal Tom Averill said there was a little resistance at the beginning of the school year from the students. While he understood their reluctance to sign on to the program right away, he stressed to them that it couldn’t hurt to eat healthy.
The guidelines for the nutritional content of snacks sold at schools are only the latest part of the federal act to be executed. Another component of the law involves better monitoring of the nutritional standards upheld in lunchrooms. To this end, districts will be audited every three years to ensure that they met the approved standards. Saugerties was audited in the 2012-2013 school year, and according to Business Manager Lissa Jilek, it passed “with flying colors.”
Parents, too, have access to the nutritional breakdown of the foods their children are served via the district website. Under the cafeteria link, there is information about the calorie and carbohydrate content of each food served on a given day.
There are critics of the program; some see it as too much federal involvement in local schools. Nonetheless, in order to qualify for additional federal funding for free and reduced price lunches, schools have to meet these standards.