Howard schools' health and wellness changes 'smooth' so far

Students at Hammond High School may have noticed something different about their school this year. Like all other schools in the Howard County Public School System, Hammond implemented changes to improve the health and wellness of its students. The biggest, most noticeable difference, said Hammond Principal Marci Leonard, is what's available in the student vending machines — the options are looking healthier.

The proposed policy for wellness through nutrition and physical activity was given preliminary approval last spring by the Board of Education, and healthier options in school vending machines is one of the changes the Board of Education made that have taken effect in county schools. So far, the transition at Hammond is going smoothly, Leonard said.

There are two kinds of vending machines in high schools, Leonard said: ones with snacks and ones with beverages. Over the summer, Hammond's administration worked with school vendors to turn over all the options in the machines, and now they're filled with selections that meet certain standards set by the Institute of Medicine.

For the snacks, that means portions can't exceed more than 200 calories with no more than 35 percent total calories from fat; and must have zero trans fat and 200 mg or less of sodium, among other standards. For beverages, that means "non-caffeinated, non-fortified beverages with less than five calories per portion as packaged, with or without non-nutritive sweeteners, carbonation or flavoring," according the IOM.

"They are certainly much healthier options now, and the students are taking advantage of it," Leonard said. "It's not, 'oh, I wanted to get something sugary and sweet and now I can't.' What's made available to them is what they're going to buy, and I think the healthier options are actually appreciated by the high school athletes and students in after-school activities who are looking for that extra boost of energy."

An update on the policy for wellness through nutrition and physical activity was presented to the board last month. But the policy isn't finalized yet.

When the policy first came to a vote in May, board members delayed final approval as they deemed more work needed to be done on nutritional guidelines and more discussion needed to occur among the schools, PTAs and booster clubs as to what food and drinks can and can't be sold for fundraisers at concession stands. Other aspects of the policy — like the new vending machine guidelines — went into effect for the start of school.

With the updated revisions before the board, central office staff suggested using IOM standards for the nutritional guidelines, rather than creating the system's own standards. Board member Janet Siddiqui, a pediatrician, asked that staff continue looking at creating "our own guidelines" as work continues, and board member Cindy Vaillancourt also wanted guidelines stricter than IOM standards "down the line."

Right now, staff is working to collect the input of those most directly impacted by the new policy: students. Deputy Superintendent Linda Wise and Executive Director of School Improvement and Administration Frank Eastham were scheduled to attend the most recent meeting of the Howard County Association of Student Councils Wednesday, gathering input of the middle and high school students who represent their schools' student government associations.

Specifically, Eastham and Wise were to ask students to share ideas for improving school lunches, said schools spokeswoman Rebecca Amani-Dove. Collecting student input won't stop at HCASC, Amani-Dove said, as central office wants their feedback to change the school lunches over time.

"It's an evolving process," she said. "It's important the students have a voice in what's being offered to them during the school day."

At its Oct. 10 meeting, Superintendent Renee Foose said if the board wanted staff to explore "refined" IOM standards, conduct field tests and gather more stakeholder input for a more "robust" policy, more time was needed. The board decided to push a final vote back from Jan. 9, 2014 to sometime in March. Another report will come before the board in January, followed by a public hearing.

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