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As Kids Head Back to School, National Advocacy Group Issues Report on Progress of School Wellness

SYRACUSE, N.Y., Aug. 8 /PRNewswire/ -- "The passage of federal legislation two years ago mandating schools to adopt wellness policies -- a response by Congress to the alarming surge in childhood obesity -- will be looked back upon as the launching pad for the school wellness movement," says a 60-page report issued this week by the Action For Healthy Kids Coalition (AFHK). "That legislation has gotten the ball rolling by identifying schools as playing a key role in the development of children's eating and exercising habits," says Andrea Thompson, Vice President of School Marketing for the American Dairy Association and Dairy Council, Inc., serving schools in New York, Northern and Central NJ and Northeast PA.

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While the report commends schools for eliminating soft drink and junk food vending machines, it says the focus for improving nutrition can't only be on foods and beverages to avoid. Improving the quality of the nutrient-rich foods that make up the USDA-guided school cafeteria menu presents an opportunity for increasing overall nutritional wellness. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the USDA say the nutritional content of school meals has improved since the mid-1990s, but the key -- according to the report -- is making healthy offerings more youth-appealing.

The dairy industry recognized this gap and has introduced innovated programs such as the "New Look of School Milk" to schools throughout the country. A collaborative effort between farmers and milk processors, the program has overhauled the appearance of school milk and has been successful in increasing milk consumption. "The goal of the program was to update milk's image to make it more appealing to kids, so that they'd drink more and get the essential nutrients they need," explains Thompson.

The key was changing packaging and adding flavors. "We got rid of the old fashioned, hard-to-open, paperboard cartons and put milk in contemporary plastic, resealable containers," says Thompson. "We worked with milk processors to formulate additional low-fat milk flavors like strawberry, vanilla, and orange and are seeing increases in milk consumption up to 30 percent in schools that offer the new milk."

In the New York Metro area, Farmland Dairies of Wallington, NJ produces the new milk, which is currently distributed to over 200 schools including Wall, Union City, Toms River, East Brunswick, Closter, Morris, Randolph, Budd Lake, Sayreville and Long Beach, Long Island. In Toms River, NJ, Pete Brattan, Director of the district's school food service program, says the small increase in cost for the new milk is made up by the increase in volume. Brattan also says that recycling the plastic containers helps teach kids a lesson about going green. Kevin J Hannon, Jr., School Food Service Director of Long Beach Public Schools began offering the new milk to his 4,100 students last October. "I'm a milk drinker myself, and I was bothered by the statistics that showed so many young people were abandoning milk at such an early age," says Hannon. "We've had nothing but positive feedback from parents, teachers and students."

Outside the Metro area, other processors including Upstate Farms of Buffalo and Galliker's Dairy of Johnson, PA, produce the new milk as well and distribute it to schools in Buffalo, Canandaigua, Jamestown, Ballston Spa, Clarence, Corning, Grand Island and Milton, PA. "Students love the updated look and more flavor varieties -- vanilla is the favorite," says Sharon Bogue of Canandaigua City schools. To encourage even more healthy options, Bogue worked with the Dairy Association to put healthy vending milk machines in several of her buildings. In Milton, PA, school food service director Sharon Adami reported a 39 percent increase in milk consumption the first week the new milk was offered. "This is very positive news for the health of our students. While across the country we've seen milk consumption among teens dip, here in Pennsylvania, we've actually found a way to get kids to drink more."

Thompson agrees with the AFHK report that a mix of ridding the school environment of high-calorie, nutrient-void items -- coupled with an emphasis on bolstering the appeal of nutrient-rich foods like milk -- will have a positive outcome for students, but talks about other options as well. "Schools have control over what is served in the cafeteria, but more schools are beginning to regulate what kids bring in from home," she says. For example, in New Jersey, the Hillsborough middle school in Somerset County, with more than 1,200 seventh- and eighth-graders, is among a growing number across the country that has banned or is considering banning energy drinks from their campuses.

Another option for schools to try to increase consumption of nutritionally balanced school meals is to offer alternative service especially for breakfast. Thompson says the highly successful "breakfast in the classroom" program in Newark and Buffalo schools has increased participation in the breakfast program by 100 percent. "Many kids just do not arrive at school early enough to eat breakfast in the cafeteria and many do not eat at home," says Thompson. "'HUNGRY' is no way to start a successful school day."

The "breakfast in the classroom" program delivers morning meals to students right in their classroom, ensuring no child starts the day on an empty stomach. According to Thompson, a "grab and go" breakfast whereas healthy breakfast items are placed on carts positioned at the front door like the ones in Union City, NJ and Rochester, NY also increase the number of kids that have access to healthy morning meals. "Another alternative method of marketing healthy foods and beverages to students is through ala carte sales and vending," notes Thompson. Through a matching grant program, the Dairy Association has placed over 250 healthy vending machines in schools that offer students milk, flavored milk, yogurt, string cheese and cereal.

The AFHK report surmises that new wellness policies and initiatives have put "school wellness" on the radar screen. To continue moving forward, more cooperation between administrators and parents is necessary as is a more stringent system of monitoring and evaluation.

Action for Healthy Kids is a public-private partnership of more than 60 national organizations and government agencies representing education, health, fitness, and nutrition. Action for Healthy Kids addresses the epidemic of overweight, sedentary, and undernourished youth by focusing on changes in schools to improve nutrition and increase physical activity. More than 10,000 volunteer educators, health professionals, school administrators, parents, and others take action at the national, state, school district, and school building levels through Action for Healthy Kids Teams in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

SOURCE American Dairy Association and Dairy Council, Inc.
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