SNAK Project Offers Insight on Future of Nutrition Education in schools

03/3/2014

Photo courtesy of the SNAK Project Fact Sheet. (view larger image)

Photo courtesy of the SNAK Project Fact Sheet.

Findings of a three-year study in Michigan middle schools indicates that USDA’s new Smart Snacks in School nutrition standards for all foods sold in schools will improve student’s diets.  These new standards, required of all schools participating in the Federal school meals programs, will take effect July 1 of 2014, and will replace snacks like donuts, chocolate bars and regular cola with light popcorn, fruit, granola bars and no-calorie flavored water in vending machines and other areas where students purchase food items at school.

Led by Dr. Katherine Alaimo, Dept of Food Science and Human Nutrition, Michigan State University, the School Nutrition Advances Kids (SNAK) project involved 65 low-income middle schools in Michigan, more than 2,000 students, teachers and staff from these schools and a team of scientists from MSU, Oakland University and a number of Michigan state departments and organizations. 

The 65 schools acted as “nutrition laboratories” to help answer important questions about nutrition education, policies and practices in middle schools and how they affect student health. Scientists also hoped to discover whether the assessment, action planning, and implementation process of the Healthy School Action Tools (HSAT) improved nutrition education, policies and practices in Michigan schools.

The schools were randomly placed into four different groups:

  • Healthy School Action Tools (HSAT) only: 18 schools were asked to form a Coordinated School Health Team, complete the HSAT’s healthy eating and nutrition topic areas to assess the school’s nutrition environment, education, policies and practices. They were then asked to create an action plan to improve the school’s nutrition education, policies and environment, and make at least one improvement on the school’s nutrition education.
  • Student “SNAK” Teams: Five schools completed the HSAT and then formed seventh grade student teams that worked to assess their school’s environment, then used a small stipend provided to them to implement improvements of their choice.
  • Michigan State Board of Education (MSBE) Policy for healthier a la carte: 22 schools completed the HSAT and implemented a 2003 Michigan State Board of Education policy, that recommended that schools offer predominately healthy foods and beverages in venues outside of the school meals program, such as a la carte.
  • Controls: 20 schools were selected to collect data only.

The main findings of the study were:

  • When schools added healthy lunchtime a la carte or vending items, students’ diets improved. Six schools improved their a la carte offerings to meet the MSBE policy (which required that at least 51 percent of foods being offered were healthy), two schools eliminated a la carte options altogether, and six others started new vending or a la carte menus with entirely or almost entirely healthy options. The greatest improvement in students’ health occurred at the schools that created all new options, consisting of mostly healthy foods – the students in these schools increased their intakes of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, fiber, calcium, vitamin A, and vitamin C.
  • When schools implemented three or more new nutrition practices and policies, students’ diets improved. Students in schools that made at least three improvements in nutrition policies had significantly higher intakes of fiber and fruit compared to schools that had made fewer changes.
  • Several school climate characteristics supported school nutrition improvements. Schools that had support from administrators for nutrition goals, as well as a Coordinated School Health Team, a school champion for health issues, teamwork among staff and tendencies to take student preferences into account made the most improvements in school nutrition overall.

The Michigan study has made several recommendations on what schools can do to improve nutrition among students. Along with implementing the USDA’s new Smart Snacks in School nutrition standards, and improving the healthfulness of foods allowed as a la carte or vending machine items, the study suggests that the HSAT process used in these Michigan schools is a worthwhile venture in helping schools improve their nutrition education, policies and practices, and in turn the health of students now and in the future

This work was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Healthy Eating Research Program, USDA’s SNAP-Ed Program through the Michigan Nutrition Network/MSU Extension, and the Michigan Department of Community Health.