By Zachary Matson
NISKAYUNA — Students at Niskayuna elementary schools can choose from a long list of tasty snacks at the end of their lunch period, including Fruit Gushers, Cheetos, Oreos and four different flavors of Doritos.
But a committee of parents and district staff – in partnership with the school board – is poised to strip out some of the unhealthy snacks and replace them with healthier alternatives.
“The list presented here, frankly, if they eat all of this, they aren’t going to eat anything healthy,” board member Pat Lanotte said of the snack list during the school board’s Tuesday meeting. “If they have access to this throughout the day, we know this is what they are going to eat.”
The snack list, presented as part of a broader discussion by the district’s nutrition committee, reveals that students at Niskayuna’s five elementary schools have access to snack options that are far from meeting recently-updated federal nutrition guidelines for food sold in schools.
While the snack lists differ from school to school, elementary students have the option to purchase snacks toward the end of their lunch period at all elementary schools, choosing from such items as Fruit-by-the-Foot, Goldfish, Rice Krispie Treats and a handful of ice cream options.
“Those types of foods are higher fat, higher sodium, are food that should only be eaten on an occasional basis,” said Lisa Petroski, a registered dietician with the Ellis Hospital system. “I don’t think (elementary students) should have access to those kinds of foods on a regular basis.”
Petroski also said the availability of such snacks at schools sends a message to young students that it is OK to eat them, and kids can form long-lasting eating habits. She also raised questions about why the snack was needed in the first place.
“If they are getting a meal that’s balanced, why do they need those extra snacks?” Petroski said. “Most kids’ eating habits are formed by age 5 … if they are incorporating high-fat, high-calorie foods at early ages, and eating them in place of fruits and vegetables, we are setting those kids up for problems later in life.”
Parents on the nutrition committee – Kiersten Spain, Aline Stabler and Ellen Daviero – said they want the schools to do a better job of promoting healthy, nutritious, “whole” foods. But they also said they recognized the importance of moving forward cautiously, so as not to “shock the system.”
At least one board member recalled parent and student backlash to previous attempts to rework the district’s cafeteria offerings.
But students will be better served – physically, mentally and academically – if they have more nutritious snacks at school, the parents said as they passed out samples of healthier alternatives, like Skinny Pop popcorn, to board members. The parents also seemed confident the students would adapt to the healthier options.
“They will eat what you give them,” Stabler told the school board. “I want to simplify everything. I want whole real food, so we can start that early — that you eat real food. Food can either be the best medicine or the worst poison.”
The board members appeared to support moving to a more consistent list of healthier snack options, but they also raised questions about the cost of doing so.
“Why wouldn’t we make a shift to seven, eight, 12 healthy alternatives uniformly across the elementary schools?” board member Jack Calareso said. “Just do it and push it out.”
Board members called for an examination of whether the snack options align with the district’s wellness policy. “A la carte offerings” to students “shall include nutritious choices” and “meet or exceed federal recommended guidelines,” the policy states.
Federal guidelines – the USDA Smart Snacks program – states that “any food sold in schools” should have a fruit, vegetable, dairy or protein product as the main ingredient, should contain at least one-fourth cup of fruit or vegetables and contain 10 percent of the daily value of a major health nutrient.
Niskayuna schools, however, are not part of the federal snack or lunch program; they dropped it a few years back, as rules started to force menu changes the district wasn’t prepared to adopt.
The school board will be updated at a future meeting about how well the current offerings align with school policy, as well as initial cost estimates for swapping some of the snack options with healthier alternatives, Niskayuna Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr. said.
But he also said he didn’t think that by offering certain snack choices the district was sending a dangerous signal to students about what kinds of foods make up a good diet. Students can only buy the snacks toward the end of the lunch period; some of the schools limit the number of items they can purchase, while others do not. The snack menus and rules are set by individual schools.
“I think snacks are just that; they are snacks,” Tangorra said. “They are not replacements for meals, and I don’t think, in any of our cafeterias, are they being treated that way.”
The snack conversation opened the door to a broader conversation about the district’s overall food service program, which is running at a financial deficit. Last year, the food service program lost around $140,000, which was partially offset with a $100,000 fund balance, district spokesman Matt Leon said.
District officials plan to analyze the pros and cons of reentering the federal lunch program, which reimburses districts for serving low-income students. The number of low-income students has been growing in Niskayuna schools.
“We want to provide an appetizing and nutritious food service that operates in the black, and we need to make sure we have all the necessary tools to make that happen,” Tangorra said.