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Dairy’s Role in the School Health and Wellness Battleground

Below is the 9th in a 10-week thought leadership series by Western Dairy Association’s President and CEO Cindy Haren, discussing the challenges facing the dairy industry and how the dairy checkoff is working to remain a leader in developing solutions and creating innovation. 

The school environment continues to be the battleground for defining childhood health and wellness. It is where nutrition policies are often fought for and frequently rewritten.
For example, new regulations set nutrition standards for “competitive foods” – those sold a la carte and through vending machines, competing with the school lunch and breakfast programs.  This is the first time the government has issued regulations governing competitive foods in schools.

However, after just one year of the “healthier” new federal lunch program that set new guidelines to limit calories and salt, phase in more whole grains and require that fruit and vegetable be served daily, schools around the country are leaving the program because kids are no longer buying the new school meals and cafeterias are losing money.

In fall 2012, about 31 million students participated in the federal guidelines – 2010 Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act. According to the School Nutrition Association, 1 percent of 521 district nutrition directors surveyed over the 2013 summer, planned to drop out of the program in the 2013-14 school year and 3 percent were considering dropping out.

These districts are rejecting the program because the federal reimbursement has not been enough to offset losses from students who are avoiding school meals in favor of bringing food from home or in some cases, going hungry instead.

Yet federal officials are reportedly saying they have seen only an isolated number of schools cutting ties with the $11 billion National School Lunch Program.

Regardless, all of us know that students who are undernourished and hungry throughout the day result in an increased risk of lack of attentiveness and behavior issues.

The federal guidelines are just one of many issues in childhood health and wellness that are being addressed through schools. Consider that during the 2013 legislative session, states across the country contended with a spectrum of childhood nutrition and wellness topics, from competitive foods, purchasing of locally grown foods to obesity bills. Some examples:

  •  In Virginia, the Education Department scheduled a public hearing for proposed rules that would update nutritional guidelines for competitive foods sold in schools.
  • Rhode Island enacted a bill promoting the purchase of locally grown fruits, vegetables and dairy products in schools.
  • In Missouri, a bill requiring the Department of Education to develop guidelines for training school employees in the care needed for certain students was signed by Governor Jay Nixon. The bill also requires a physical fitness challenge program to be developed for school students.
  • In Indiana, the board of Indianapolis Public Schools has approved a three-month pilot during which it will significantly reduce the flavored milk available in school meals.

Each new school year, diverse new programs and grants are competing for the school health and wellness space.

An estimated 50 million children attend 180 days of school in the United States.  At least half of those children participate in the school lunch program and 13 million participate in school breakfast.

For more than 100 years, through the dairy checkoff, dairy farmers have financially supported their heartfelt value of providing good nutrition to children in school. They firmly believe schools are the place where lifelong consumer behaviors are made, learning nutrition education and the wholesomeness milk, cheese and yogurt have every day in their diets.

We know success in schools is paramount. Schools are where school children receive easily usable nutrition information, where fun and nutritious dairy foods are easy to access and where school personnel rely on organizations like Western Dairy, which provides sound information and health and wellness programs to students.

At Western Dairy, we work to address the challenges schools face with nutrition and health and wellness in several ways while ultimately encouraging more children to participate in feeding programs. By doing so, we are helping to increase the Average Dairy Participation (ADP), which impacts meal reimbursements as well as provides opportunities to create exciting, new nutritious menu items and new packaging.  We also work with school nutrition personnel assisting in nutrition and physical fitness objectives in ways that are far reaching across 73,000 schools nationwide.

We continue to bring new community partners and their resources to these efforts. Some examples:

Fuel Up to Play 60 – In partnership with the National Football League (NFL), FUTP 60 has brought more than $3 million to advance the program through 60+ business models implemented locally.  The program aims to improve the school wellness environment related to food, nutrition and physical activity as well as place students at the forefront to enhance schools’ capacity for implementing wellness policies. The objectives of FUTP 60 include:

  • Increase access to healthful, kid-appealing options of fruits, vegetables, whole grain and nonfat, low fat dairy throughout the school day and campus-wide
  • Increase opportunities for students to be physically active before, during and after school
  • Increase student consumption of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans’ recommended number of servings for fruit, vegetable, whole grain and non-fat/low-fat dairy food groups
  • Increase student participation in physical activity each day

Promotion - United States Departments of Agriculture, Education, and Health and Human Services, promoting Fuel Up to Play 60 and GENYOUth. USDA directed its state nutrition agencies to work closely with FUTP60 locally, and the success we’ve had with USDA has opened opportunities with other government departments. HHS promotes FUTP60 as a key resource to help kids earn the President’s Active Living Award, and the Secretary of Education featured FUTP60 in his Back-to-School Tour and in a public service announcement on physical activity and healthy eating, including dairy nutrition.

Breakfast in the classroom grants – funds to help pay for equipment/programs to implement breakfast in the classroom

Dairy Farm to School Program – Brings a dairy farmer to the classroom to educate students on where their food comes from.

Future Farmers of America Dairy Curriculum – Teaching the “dairy value chain” to high school students, ending with an on farm experience.

Developing innovative foods like Domino’s Smart Slice Pizza, Grab-N-Go meals and dairy smoothie menus which help bring excitement to school foods.

BRAX – Through a partnership with BRAX fundraising, schools across the country are embracing the Fuel Up Cups program which provides a resource to fund and implement Fuel Up to Play 60 programs. Schools earn $7.25 plus $.50 in bonus dollars per set sold for the school. An additional $.50 per set sold goes back to the GenYOUth Foundation for grants in the WDA region. The cups feature NFL, MLB and college teams, as well as military and are a great way for schools to raise extra funds with a dynamic FUTP 60 partner. Just recently, it was announced that Colorado is the top fundraising state for the Fuel Up Cups program meaning our FUTP 60 schools are raising money to keep their programs strong!

Vitamix – A grant program with partner Vitamix has resulted in schools throughout the WDA region receiving the funds necessary to purchase blenders allowing them to offer dairy-based smoothies to students.

Colorado Chefs – Collaborating with the Colorado Chefs Association as well as school districts, WDA is continuously working with schools to create nutritious, fun meals that appeal to more students.

How are we optimizing dairy foods in schools?  Each of the above programs allows dairy to partner with organizations who share dairy farm families’ value of helping children reach better health and wellness

For example, in “Grab-N-Go” lunch and breakfast test effort in Colorado schools, funded by Western Dairy Association and Leprino Foods:
Dairy sales increased in milk, cheese and yogurt, with an average annual increase of 6,898 units of dairy products per school:

  • Cheese: realized a +3,698 incremental units per school/year – with an Annualized opportunity per 1,000 schools of 3.7 million units
  • Milk: realized +1,093 incremental units per school/per year – with an annualized opportunity per 1,000 schools of 1.1 million units
  • Yogurt: increased +177 percent, with an annualized opportunity per 1,000 schools – 2.1 million units

Another example is grants. Breakfast grants have been very successful in increasing dairy sales and ADP. Specifically, overall breakfast participation has increased over the past two years by 3 percent. According to the national checkoff, Dairy Management Inc. (DMI), “when schools get the Fuel Up to Play 60 grants, that increase triples, and schools receiving our dairy optimization grants increase the daily participation by 42 percent.”

Dairy partners such as the NFL, General Mills, Leprino Foods, Hewlett-Packard, Quaker Oats, H.J. Heniz Company Foundation, Kraft, President’s Council on Fitness and many others believe firmly in the importance of breakfast in schools that they are funding significant grants to increase breakfast in schools.

Schools and students have been a focus of dairy farmers with the start of the National Dairy Council established in 1915, locally in Colorado since 1936.  Today that focus is even more important to help the schools make “sense” of the battles, and today we are working with more partners to protect and promote dairy’s place in schools.

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