Nurses see need for local foods at school

VERGENNES — Health care workers at the Stone Soup Conference in Vergennes last Tuesday agreed that increasing nutritious, local foods in schools needs to be a priority.
“There are some huge nutrition problems,” said Mary Gill, school nurse at Mary Hogan Elementary School in Middlebury. “They have a huge impact on students’ ability to learn.”
In fact, one in six children in Addison County are food insecure, lacking access to enough food to lead a healthy, active life; and 34 percent of students in the county are eligible for free or reduced-price meals.
Those numbers come from Megan Lausted, who works in public health and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program at the Vermont Department of Health’s Middlebury office
Lausted said food insecurity has correlations with below-average physical and psychosocial health and academic performance in children.
And those who are food insecure, she said, are also more likely to be obese — according to 2008 Vermont statistics, 16 percent of adults who reported that they don’t always have enough money for food were morbidly obese, and 11 percent were obese — this compared to 9 percent underweight or at a healthy weight, and 7 percent overweight.
Lausted also said the percentage of people in the state who eat enough fruits and vegetables each day also rises significantly as household income rises.
Lausted, Moira Cook and Gillian McMurty, also of the Department of Health, said they work with children and their parents on healthy eating and food access before they reach school, but that schools are an ideal place to continue nutritional education and work on improving food access.
Gill said a primary concern for her is the high levels of sugar in so many consumer foods, including the ones that students bring to school for snacks. She cited the research of Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist who has found that added sugars can act as toxins when consumed in large amounts, placing a strain on the pancreas and liver and contributing to a host of diseases.
While she said Lustig recommends between 150 and 200 calories of added sugars each day — 9 teaspoons for men, 6 for women — Americans consume an average of 450 calories, or 22 teaspoons, per day.
Gill also said that many food additives, preservatives and pesticides are health concerns, since many are not adequately tested and not strictly regulated on a federal level.
Local foods, said Gill, can sidestep many of these concerns: Many are less processed, contain fewer additives and less added sugar; and local produce also tends to be fresher.
“It’s about changing the system from the ground up,” said Gill.
All of the health care workers present agreed that new USDA school lunch regulations will push school lunches in the right direction, adding more fruits, whole grains and vegetarian options and limiting sodium. The new regulations will roll out starting with the 2012-2013 school year.
But they also acknowledged that it can be very difficult for kitchens working with tight budgets and USDA surplus commodities, which schools get very cheaply, to fit in as many nutritionally dense foods as possible.
“Commodities hold us back because we don’t know what quality we’re getting,” said Gill.
Debbie Gorton, school nurse in Rochester and Stockbridge, said that is the main stumbling block that her schools face in trying to bring in more local foods.
“It all comes down to the money. We can’t give up the commodities,” she said.
And while school nurses don’t work in the kitchens at the schools, those at last week’s conference agreed that they could be vocal in advocating for strong nutrition policies within the school and in educating students and parents about nutrition.
Bringing others into the nutritional push is crucial for a school culture that is supportive of farm-to-school initiatives, said Annie Cohn, school nurse at Ferrisburgh Central School. That, said Cohn, is what has happened at her school, which has a vibrant garden and a meal plan that integrates many local foods.
“The parents are involved (in farm-to-school), and they demand it now,” said Cohn.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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