CDC: Miss.among leaders in school nutrition

Published 12:00 am Saturday, October 10, 2009

From staff and AP reports

A report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says Mississippi and Tennessee have made the greatest progress in improving nutrition in their schools.

It’s a welcome change in Mississippi, which routinely leads the nation in obesity rates, heart disease and diabetes. State health officials think that track record could be reversed by putting youngsters on the right path early.

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Gail Kavanaugh, child nutrition director for the Vicksburg Warren School District, said federal and state regulations have always required healthy meals in school cafeterias. But new regulations passed at both levels over the past few years have made the snack options students have much healthier, she said.

“Where some of the work really needed to be done was on what was being sold to the children outside of the cafeteria, and that’s where the state of Mississippi has put a lot more regulations,” Kavanaugh said. “We do not have vending machines in our schools until after hours, and the items in the machines have to meet fat and calorie requirements.” 

All school districts in Mississippi were forced to develop wellness policies to comply with the federal Women, Infants and Children Reauthorization Act of 2004. The law required schools to develop a healthy eating plan for students. Mississippi lawmakers later adopted legislation to support the federal law.

Kavanaugh said she’s seen great strides in child nutrition in schools over her 28-year career. However, she said the greatest challenge is getting the students’ parents to reinforce the importance of a healthy diet and lifestyle outside of school hours.

“We need to make the community aware that this has to be a community effort and not just a school effort. What parents have got to realize is that the obesity problem is a crisis, and they have to take responsibility for what their children consume at home,” she said. “We’ve have a lot of regulations we’re required to meet at the schools and we provide healthy options for the kids every day, but they only eat a small amount of their meals at school. What happens at home is also key to raising a healthy child.”

According to the CDC report, released  this week, the percentage of Mississippi secondary schools that don’t allow students to buy candy or salty snacks increased from 23 percent in 2006 to 72 percent in 2008. The percentage that did not sell soda or fruit drinks that are not 100 percent juice increased from 22 percent to 75 percent.

Schools banning the sale of the snacks in Tennessee increased from about 31 percent in 2006 to 72 percent in 2008. Those that stopped selling the unhealthy drinks went from 26 percent to 73 percent.

“I’m just so excited, you just don’t know,” Shane McNeill, director of the office of healthy schools for the Mississippi Department of Education, said of the CDC findings.

McNeill said the state is conducting research in some of its 152 school districts to determine the effect students’ fitness levels have on academic achievement, discipline referrals and suspension rates.

Mississippi also is a participant in the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, an initiative of the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation.

Ginny Ehrlich, the alliance’s executive director, said the group works in 38 states, but she said what sets Mississippi apart are the guidelines it adopted in 2006.

“It looks like it’s really paid off with a significant change,” said Ehrlich.