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School districts get As ... for apples

Joe Napsha
| Sunday, Aug. 25, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Students who want to snack while in school will learn to settle for an apple instead of a Fruit Roll-Up.

Although federal regulations for snacks served in schools don't take effect until next year, many students are buying healthier snacks and beverages in cafeterias, vending machines and snack bars.

At Greensburg Salem, students can put $1.25 into a vending machine for some pita chips or spend 60 cents for peanuts — but only after classes.

Schools are replacing selections high in fat, salt and sugar with better choices on school lunch trays and in vending machines.

“It's better to do it now, because it will not be as big as a shock to them,” said Curtistine Walker, food service director for Pittsburgh Public Schools, which serves about 19,000 lunches and 11,000 breakfasts each school day.

The Department of Agriculture this summer passed the Smart Snacks in School interim standard, which mandates healthier snack options for students.

“It's been more than 30 years since they have been updated,” said Maureen Spill, a senior research associate for the Kids' Safe and Healthful Foods Project, an initiative of Pew Charitable Trusts, a Washington nonprofit.

In the latest battle against childhood obesity, cafeterias offer carrots instead of cookies and vending machines dispense bottled water instead of soft drinks. School clubs will be permitted to sell those $1 chocolate bars to raise money.

Under the standards, snacks must be less than 200 calories.

The changes could make a big difference. Students consume up to half of their daily calories at school, Spill said.

“Having a healthier lifestyle leads to less heart disease” and other health problems, she said.

The state Department of Health's screening program in 2010-11 found that almost 33 percent of students in kindergarten through sixth grade are overweight or obese, along with 34 percent of students in grades seven through 12.

The snack standards — part of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 — are designed to increase the amount of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains that children eat, while cutting back on saturated fat, trans fats and sodium. Snacks at after-school events are exempt.

Food service officials report that local districts are ahead of the game. Pennsylvania is among at least 39 states that set snack food standards.

“We really don't intend to have to make many changes at all,” said Michelle Marker, programs director for The Nutrition Group, a North Huntingdon-based food service management firm. The 150 school districts it serves include Elizabeth-Forward, Greensburg Salem, Hempfield Area, Mars, McKeesport, Mt. Pleasant Area, Penn Hills, Uniontown and Yough.

“We don't want to have a bunch of the unhealthy snacks because students will take those. You want to make sure you have choices. It's to make them feel they are in charge,” Marker said.

The government announced national standards a year ahead to give officials a chance to tinker with offerings.

“This gives them plenty of time to see what works for them,” Spill said.

Pittsburgh started serving more nutritional food five years ago, under a wellness policy the school board adopted, Walker said. When schools began to serve more nutritious meals, student participation in lunches dipped and children worked to explore which of the healthier foods they wanted, Walker said.

Greater Latrobe School District made changes that include serving whole-grain crackers with soups, said Jillian Meloy, food service director.

Many districts shut off vending machines during the school day. Yough offers few vending machines, Superintendent Janet Sardon said.

After three years of gradual change, Greensburg Salem offers only healthy snacks, said Pam Fink, food service manager. Cake is off the menu.

McGuffey School District in Washington County offers baked chips, honey wheat pretzels, fruit and vegetable sticks.

Hempfield Area High School senior Paige Casario said some of her friends make sure they have fruits and vegetables by packing lunches “because it is easier.”

Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-5252 or

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