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Chula Vista Schools Revamp Food Events Under New Wellness Policy

Aired 11/6/12 on KPBS News.

Encouraging students to make healthier food choices is part of an ongoing wellness push at the Chula Vista Elementary School District. But it may be parents who have the most trouble adjusting.

On a recent Friday, the auditorium of Clear View Elementary School in Chula Vista was starting to smell like a movie theater as moms set up for the school’s monthly movie.

Students at Clear View Elementary School settle in to watch Madagascar 3 for their monthly Friday afternoon movie, Oct. 19 2012.

In past years, warm popcorn from the old-fashioned popper was packed into large, theater-sized bags. But the school district’s new wellness policy states that food sold at afterschool events or fundraisers has to meet the guidelines for in-school food. So now the bags hold about two cups of popcorn.

Aracely Paiz, who was manning the popper, said she’s in favor of the new guidelines.

“I’m a student from Southwestern College, too," she said. "And I’m taking some classes about nutrition and I think what we’re doing right now over here is very nice. Because we’re giving the kids water and snacks but not much salt and not much sugar.”

Two years ago, the school district measured each student’s height and weight. They found the rates of obesity in Chula Vista Elementary schools exceeded the national rate at every age level. Since then, they’ve been promoting healthier foods and activities at schools. This year they introduced formal policies that ban things like cupcakes for students’ birthdays and selling foods that don’t meet district guidelines for an hour before and after the school day.

Of all of the changes, including cutting chocolate milk from the cafeterias, adding healthy options like salad bars and encouraging schools to offer active before and after school activities for students, Sharon Hillidge, a district resource teacher who led the wellness policy rewrite, said the changes affecting food rewards and events with food have gotten the most pushback.

At Clear View, the size of the popcorn bags is just the beginning of the changes they’ve made to the movie snacks, according to the school's PTA president Ellen Schalge.

“Last year we did chips and the lemonheads and the cherryheads," she said. "And lots of the Hi-C juice, that kind of thing. This year what we’ve done is change it to applesauce squeezes, frozen GoGurts. We’ve gone to Costco and gotten bunny crackers. They’re lower in calories than the chips, they’re lower in salt. And they’re under the 175 calories for a snack that the wellness policy is asking for.”

The new snacks cost more than the chips and candy from previous years. But, she said where the wellness guidelines pose the biggest challenge is fundraising.

“Our fourth and sixth grade, they have sixth grade camp and fourth grade goes to Sacramento and the teams, the parents, used to try to raise money after school. Well, one of the biggest problems has been is that you can’t sell food right after school anymore.”

At Clear View, the rule is if foods meet the new guidelines, sales can start 30 minutes after school lets out. If there are unhealthy choices, sales have to wait the full hour. Even the 30-minute wait is a tough adjustment for the kids streaming into the auditorium for Madagascar 3. Lots head straight for the snack table.

The moms running the show remind them that snack sales can't start until 2:40 p.m.

Before the movie starts, an announcement is made telling students to put the money they're brought for snacks away in a pocket or their backpacks. Even with the afternoon’s movie running, kids start drifting toward the snack tables as the clock ticks toward 2:40.

That enthusiasm tells Principal Chris Carroll that students are still enjoying the events.

“It‘s not that we’re doing away with them, we’re making some modifications and the kids appreciate that,” he said.

As snack sales finally start, that seems to be true for six-year-old Trevor Braaten. He doesn’t mention food at all to explain why he likes the monthly movies so much.

“That they’re really fun and they really can be a surprise,” he said.

He does miss some of the old snacks, but he has new favorites.

“Chocolate bunny crackers and the drinks," he said. "They’re really healthy for you and they taste really good.”

But the movie-day excitement doesn’t hold up for other changes like the end of pizza parties for the classroom that gets the most PTA memberships or cupcakes for birthdays, according to nine-year-old Noah Malquez.

“Well, a lot of people don’t like it. It’s better," he said. "But yeah, I wish that it was like sometimes we would be able to have it.”

And, at least when it comes to PTA events well outside of the school day, they can have it sometimes.

“One thing that’s nice that they’ve told PTA is – because they know that we do so many fundraisers that involve food - they’ve said, you can do things at your evening events and other events, as long as you’re offering a healthy choice with it,” Schalge said.

Schalge hasn’t seen kids or parents flocking to those healthy choices in droves when there’s something like nachos available. But that’s fine by her.

“Life is not just a bunch of rules and doing everything exactly this way. And it’s kind of nice to be able to enjoy a treat every now and then and I don’t think we should make it seem like that’s not available,” she said.

Chula Vista will have a chance to see whether fledgling efforts to encourage healthy choices have had an impact. This week they start another height and weight survey of all of their students.

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