Offering students better alternatives

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Just about every corner of Lewiston High School has a vending machine – 23 of them in all. Each generates income for school programs, but not as much capital as they probably could.

But sometimes, there are more important things than making money. When it came to choosing what to sell, Lewiston sided with the health of its students. It was a case of making sense over cents.

“We know that if we put junk food in those machines, we’d probably triple our sales,” said Michael Sanborn, director of school nutrition at Lewiston. “In the school nutrition field, we want a balance. We need to be financially responsible to our school department, but in addition, we also need to be nutritionally responsible to our customer base. What we try to do is find that medium.”

Sanborn says in the last six years, Lewiston has taken control over its vending machines as part of its stand on nutrition. Lewiston offers no soda and sells no candy in machines or at concession stands. It has a policy specifying the need for healthy choices for students and the general public at all school activities.

“I think our policies have been exemplary as you compare them statewide,” said Regis Beaulieu, the Health and Wellness Coordinator at Lewiston. “Our vending machines went above board because it includes faculty and staff. So we’re all on the same page here. We also added that no candy would be sold at any time in our school system, and that includes boosters and concession stands. That’s a big step. So, I think, in both cases, we’ve led the way.”

Oak Hill has taken similar steps to better its options for the student body. It was part of a case study in Maine high schools last year. The school tried to stock vending machines with low-fat, low-sugar items and evaluate what was served in the cafeteria.

“I saw a huge change in the behavior in kids,” said Pat Doyle, the Oak Hill principal. “Reducing the sugar content or what they could grab for in varying amounts of sugar, there was a behavior that was more calm. There was less disruption in class. There was less agitated behavior. It was an outcome I didn’t expect, but if you ask teachers, they’ll say behavior changed.”

As the girls’ basketball coach for 20 years, Doyle developed a concern about athletes and nutrition, especially young females. She’d often see girls not eat properly, developing a self-consciousness about body size. When the basketball teams would ride together, the girls would hardly eat, making Doyle wonder if girls were even consuming the proper amount of calories.

She encouraged her team to eat well. She began to forsake the tradition of stopping at fast-food places.

“We started working with kids in the early to mid 80s, about health and nutrition,” said Doyle. “What’s a good balanced meal? How many calories do you need to intake to expend two-and-a-half hours of exercise? How do you eat so you don’t gain weight? What do you need to have prior to a game on game day? We started to talk about those issues, and I think there was a consciousness among all of our coaches to have a real healthy balance for kids.”

She didn’t mandate new eating habits, but encouraged change for the better. As it turned out, those were the most successful years of her coaching career.

Tinkering with the traditional staples of concession stands, however, is a whole other challenge, fraught with greater resistance.

“Those are pretty much sacred cows,” said Doyle. “You don’t change those. What we did was encourage them to have options.”

Oak Hill has the traditional hot dogs, hamburgers and fries, but have added stews, chili, chicken and baked chips.

At Lewiston, they’ve done the same. A policy implemented last year encourages positive food choices and eating habits, but prohibits the sale of candy.

Beaulieu was recently told by a member of the booster club that eliminating the sale of candy has had little or no impact on sales at concession stands.

“I want to be able to go to a football game and have a hot dog and have a bag of chips,” said Beaulieu. “That’s American as far as I’m concerned. You want to have that choice, but you have to be prudent and have these other things available. So we went one step beyond to see how this would go.”

The changes at Lewiston and Oak Hill may foreshadow what most Maine schools will soon face. The USDA has a federal statute that says that all high schools that participate in the federal school meals program must have a wellness policy in place by September 2006.

“One of the components are nutritional guidelines for the foods that are sold in the school environment,” said Anne-Marie Davee, a registered and licensed dietitian and coordinator at the Edmund S. Muskie School of Public Service. “That is making all the school boards sit up and take notice. What nutritional guidelines do we have, if any, and should we have in the school environment? That is having a huge impact on school districts across the state. I hate to have to have it mandated, but I think we’re coming to that.”

The Maine Physical Activity and Nutrition Plan is a statewide initiative that began last year and targets youth and adults through initiatives in the community, worksite, health care and school settings. It addresses such areas as physical activity, the consumption of fruits and vegetables, the reduction of television time, eating disorders and caloric imbalance and expenditure. It hopes to promote healthier lifestyles and eating habits.

“That’s another thing that will help spur the movement on for schools to have healthier foods,” Davee said. “Hopefully, parents will see that as well, as it starts to make its way through various settings. Eventually, people will see that message.”

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