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New WFPS policy puts wellness first

Students eat lunch at the Sheyenne Ninth Grade Center in West Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Communications Co.

Keeping students in a healthy learning environment is a top priority for administrators and staff at West Fargo Public Schools, and a recently enacted policy is putting extra emphasis on just that.

The Healthy School and Nutrition Environment policy was put into place during the Aug. 22 meeting of the West Fargo School Board. The eight-page guideline lays out the groundwork for turning WFPS into a healthier environment for students and employees, by focusing on giving individuals easier access to healthy food choices and increasing overall awareness on healthy living.

"School is the one place where we can impact the lives of children based on physical education and nutrition," School Board member Karen Nitzkorski said. "The time is now."

But while the policy may have children's best interest in mind, it also places limitations on food sales during school, or at school-sponsored functions during the school day.

According to the policy, these snack items "must meet the Institute of Medicine (IOM) standards per service based on nutrition facts label or U.S. Food and Drug Administration-established serving size reference amount."

The new regulations undoubtedly will cause some upheaval from staff, parents, and students alike, district officials said. But with similar federal mandates coming down the pipe in the not-too-distant future, WFPS merely is staying ahead of the curve.

It's a concept not lost to Jan Sliper, WFPS Director of Food Services. She and her colleagues know the changes may be tough to swallow, so to speak, and are planning to phase in the policy over several years by creating attainable benchmarks.

"What do we want to see in a year, in two years, in three?" Sliper said.

While these goals have not yet been finalized, they should help stifle the backlash from parents and students upset when lunchtime junk food and soda are someday no longer allowed in school.

Giving it teeth

The concept of healthy food in school is not new. As recently as 2003, the United States government enacted nutrition and health guidelines to help stave an increasing amount of childhood illness due to poor nutrition. Although WFPS initially had good participation in its wellness program, Sliper said that eventually disappeared.

"We gave it a good shot," but the policy was weak, she said. "When we instigated it, I went to PTA meetings and gave lists of what to sell instead of cookie dough for fundraisers. We would cut up fruit for special events. It was great, but then it went by the wayside."

A few years ago, something happened that sent shockwaves through WFPS: the district ceased reimbursement for treats bought by teachers for their students.

"That had a big impact," Sliper said. "The ruling went out and people went 'Oh my gosh, they're not going to pay for my Tootsie Rolls anymore.'"

Much like the impact from the treat reimbursement, Sliper hopes this new revamping of West Fargo's wellness policy will stick around a bit longer.

"We're putting some teeth back in the policy," she said.

Still, as it stands the policy is not entirely black and white. While administration currently will not force a student to, say, dump out a soda, they will begin to emphasize healthier options.

"We passed the policy with the understanding that we'd educate people about the changes," Nitzkorski said, who pointed out that West Fargo is not the only school district in the area to enact such changes.

"It's region-wide - everyone is doing this," she said.

What it all means

Although updates on USDA mandates for school nutrition and wellness likely will not be out until "at least October," Sliper said having a policy in place beforehand can help districts cope with the changes, however drastic they may be.

West Fargo's wellness policy specifically focuses on the following areas:

• Promoting nutrition and wellness.

• Using current DGA and/or IOM standards to establish nutrition standards and provide clear guidance for all foods and beverages available on school grounds.

• Creating nutrition standards for competitive and other foods and beverages.

• Providing opportunities for physical education and activity.

• Planning and implementing activities and policies for staff wellness.

The West Fargo school district's nutritional guidelines also will meet or exceed those proposed by the USDA.

For example, students will need to consume 1.6 to 2.4 ounces of meat or meat alternative a day, which narrows the former requirement of 1.5 to 3 ounces. Bread and grain requirements are 1.8 to 2.6 ounces daily, at least half of which must be whole grain. Eight fluid ounces of milk need to be offered, and two-percent milk and whole milk are no longer allowed.

Fruits and vegetables used to be a combined requirement of ¾ cup to 1 cup or two or more fruits and or vegetables. Now the USDA is proposing ½ cup to 1 cup per day of fruits, and ¾ cup to 1 cup of vegetables.

Vegetables also should vary during the week, and must include at least ½ cup weekly of dark green vegetables, orange vegetables and legumes. Starchy vegetables - white potatoes, corn lima beans, and green beans, for example - will be limited to 1 cup weekly.

The West Fargo school district also will replace higher fat items with lower fat items, where applicable. The district will be sharing caloric, saturated fat and sodium content of meals with students, parents and staff through its website and by postings in school cafeterias.

Sliper said that, currently, finding alternatives to food offered through school is hard to come by simply because suppliers do not have products available. But as more schools jump on board with the healthy school movement, especially with the requirements set by the USDA, it's just a matter of time until those products are available, she said.

Change, no matter what, can be hard to accept sometimes. Officials hope that, with time, the changes to help increase health awareness and nutrition in the West Fargo School District will be old hat.

"It's a lot like the anti-smoking campaign was when it first started," Nitzkorski said. "Right now, less than 25 percent of society smoked, compared with many more years ago.

"It just takes time - it's a cultural thing."