SFUSD Wellness Policy Gives Sweetened Drinks the Boot

by on May 4, 2015

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Anyone wanting to enjoy a sweetened drink at a San Francisco Unified School District campus or administrative building will soon need to bring it from home. That’s because the district’s new wellness policy prohibits selling or serving beverages with added sweetener – natural or artificial – at any time to anyone, even school staff, parents or fundraiser attendees.

The SFUSD Board of Education took a bold step on April 28, voting to approve an updated school wellness policy that once again puts San Francisco on the leading edge for student health. The new policy ventures into territory where few have dared to tread, mandating that nearly all food sold or served at school, including food sent for sharing at classroom parties, must meet strict nutrition guidelines.

Soft drinks – even diet drinks – may not be sold or served, ever.

Expert: “This news is huge.”

Food policy expert and NYU Professor Marion Nestle, hearing about the new policy, responded, “This news is huge. It sends a clear message that sugary drink are inappropriate in schools. They don’t aid learning, have no nutritional value, and school kids don’t need liquid candy. Congratulations to the SFUSD for great courage and good common sense.”

In case anyone doubts the sincerity of SFUSD’s Board of Education, the new rules apply even to the dinners served to school board members before their own meetings.

Longtime SFUSD school board member Jill Wynns thinks that is exactly what is needed. “As school leaders, we have talked the talk about wellness for a long time, including about making smart choices in food and drinks. This policy reminds us that we also need to walk the walk,” she told me. “It’s important for all adults at school to model healthy behaviors, and we should be willing to abide by the same rules we put in place for students. That’s how you build a healthy community.”

San Francisco was once a leader in school wellness, with its first nutrition and physical activity policy passed in 2003, a good three years before a federal mandate required all schools to have a so-called “Wellness Policy” in place. Over the years, however, SFUSD’s policy, last updated in 2007, had slowly become obsolete, as new federal regulations and district food service changes advanced beyond the once ground-breaking rules of the 2007 policy.

My hat is off to the members of SFUSD’s Food & Fitness Advisory Committee who got this job done, as well as to all 7 members of the Board of Education, who approved the policy unanimously and with great enthusiasm.

Anyone who has ever tried to write policy, even in a room with only those of like mind and philosophy, knows that it is an exercise in frustration, pitting allies against each other in heated debate over whether to write that something “shall” happen, or “must” happen. I served 8 years as co-chair of the SFUSD nutrition committee that wrote the original policy and its 2007 update, and I still have nightmares about those policy writing sessions.

New guidelines will “meet or exceed” prior rules

Thanks to the original 2003 policy, soda and other soft drinks containing sweeteners – real or artificial – have not been sold in SFUSD schools since January 2004, but that policy and its 2007 update stopped short of disallowing soft drinks at parties or fundraisers, nor did those policies apply to adults-only events. Now, adults will be expected to model good eating habits while on school property, even if no students are around.

According to the new policy, the 2015 nutrition guidelines (which will be formalized over the next month) will “meet or exceed current SFUSD standards” from the 2007 policy, as well as all state and federal regulations.

Will those nutrition guidelines exceed the federal Smart Snacks in Schools regulation, which still allow a multitude of what some would call junk food? School board member Wynns expects they will. “The school board does not want vending machines or student stores selling chips or Cheetos, no matter how ‘smart’ they may be,” she explained.

Bye-bye chocolate milk?

Even the low sugar chocolate milk offered with school meals, and allowed under state and federal regulations, as well as under the 2007 policy, could vanish from SFUSD cafeterias. The policy calls for Student Nutrition Services to “explore ways to phase out chocolate milk and…share findings from its exploration with the Board of Education within a year after the Policy is approved.”

Chocolate milk, allowed (and some would say, promoted) under USDA regulations for school meals, has never been considered a “soft drink” due to the fact that milk, unlike soda and other empty calorie beverages, does contain nutrients.

There are strong arguments to be made on both sides of this issue. While some parents say their children won’t drink plain milk, others feel chocolate milk, even the low sugar variety served in SFUSD cafeterias, is an unnecessary source of added sugar that should be eliminated.

Fundraising and parties to be impacted

Food sold for school fundraising may be only minimally impacted under the new policy; the big change will be for beverages.

As has been the case since 2003, all fundraising done by students must comply with district nutrition guidelines, while adult-run food fundraising, which can include non-compliant food, can only take place after the end of the school day, or on weekends or holidays.

Thus, adult-run school bake sales, even of non-compliant cookies, brownies and cakes, can still take place during non school hours. These adult-run sales can be held 10 times per year at elementary schools, or any day at middle and high school.

However, beverages sold for fundraising are impacted by the new policy, which specifies for the first time (in the “Competitive foods” section on fundraising) that “Beverages must meet the Nutrition Guidelines at all times.”

The upshot – sweetened drinks may never be sold or served at school – ever – including at fundraisers.

The nutrition guidelines will also apply to class parties and celebrations, which will only be allowed after lunch. This is a change that has long been called for by children’s health organizations, but one which few school districts have been brave enough to adopt.

Policy affects Board of Education too

The nutrition guidelines apply even to adult-only events, like staff and parent meetings, at every SFUSD campus and administrative building.

The section of the policy that mandates “District funds can only be used to purchase foods and beverages that meet the District’s nutrition guidelines” ensures that the dinner that school board members enjoy in their office before board meetings will be the same kind of food they have prescribed for students, and soft drinks will no longer be served.

Who knows – perhaps the Board of Education will even take the radical step of serving only Revolution Foods meals before their meetings, making them the first in the country to commit to eating regularly the same food served to students. Wouldn’t that be a great idea?

No change to school meals

While the new wellness policy also covers school meals, SFUSD Executive Director of Policy & Operations Orla O’Keeffe told me that there is no expected impact; all state, federal, and SFUSD nutrition guidelines are already incorporated into the district’s contract with school meal provider Revolution Foods.

Breakfast expansion is prioritized in the new policy, with a directive that “all eligible District schools shall partner with Student Nutrition Services and/or Early Education Department to implement federal breakfast expansion models.” SFUSD has been trying for a decade to increase the number of students eating school breakfast, beginning in 2005 with a Grab n Go breakfast program piloted at Balboa High School, which soon expanded to other schools.

More recently, Breakfast in the Classroom and Second Chance Breakfast programs have been tried at some low income elementary schools. Breakfast in the Classroom provides a universal free breakfast waiting for every student on their desk when the school bell rings, while Second Chance Breakfast is available to students during their morning recess period.

Protecting school meals from competition

Another section of the policy seeks to protect the breakfast effort from unwanted competition. Schools are prohibited from allowing outside organizations to sell or serve even policy-compliant food and beverages to students if it is in competition with school meals, and requires any such group to get prior approval from the district’s Student Nutrition Services (SNS) department.

These restrictions appear to be aimed at the SF Food Bank, which began serving a midmorning snack in some low income SF public schools several years ago, without first consulting with SNS. The Food Bank now serves the morning snack in over 30 schools, reaching 11,000 students, according to their website.

Some feel that the morning snack conflicts with school breakfast, especially Second Chance Breakfast, as both are offered during morning recess. SFUSD’s Orla O’Keeffe confirmed that the Food Bank will need to obtain permission from SNS to continue serving snacks at school.

New emphasis on physical education and activity

Christina Goette, a public health professional, SFUSD parent, and vice-chair of the Food & Fitness Advisory Committee, is excited about the emphasis on both PE and physical activity in the new policy. She cites the rule prohibiting the disciplinary practice of “benching” students at recess – taking away their chance to be physically active – as a huge step in addressing students’ needs.

Often the children benched, she says, are the kinesthetic learners, the ones who most need to move around in order to be ready to learn.

Another section of the policy mandates that schools prioritize the use of black top for students’ physical activities. Some schools currently allow teachers to park on the black top, limiting or eliminating space for kids to be active during PE and recess.

Overall, Goette is happy with the progress the new policy represents. “There has been a seismic shift,” she says, “in recognizing that health and wellness have to be prioritized.”

Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at PEACHSF.org. Follow her on Twitter @nestwife, or read more than 140 characters of her writing in her complete archive.

Contributor

Dana Woldow

Dana Woldow advocates for policies, including soda taxes and better school meals, to improve the health of all children through better nutrition and education. She has been a leader in improving school food in San Francisco since 2002, when she formed a school nutrition group to run a pilot removing junk food from SFUSD's Aptos Middle School, where her children were students; the pilot was expanded to all of the city's public middle and high schools in 2003. She served as co-chair of the SFUSD Student Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee from October 2003 to June 2011.

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