- Associated Press - Sunday, November 16, 2014

GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) - A slew of volunteers man the Generals’ Store at Wade Hampton High School, selling snacks to hungry high school students during breakfast and lunch hours.

In the past, students have loaded up on the store’s staple items - chips and candy bars - but this year those snacks are noticeably absent from the store.

High-sugar, high-fat snacks have been banned under new nationwide healthy eating standards that went into effect in July.

Leaders of Wade Hampton’s school store fear they could lose thousands of dollars in income this year, which could jeopardize after-school tutoring programs.

And Greenville County Schools says forced changes to its in-school food vendors could cost it $1 million in sales this school year.

Local schools, clubs and parent-teacher organizations say they are losing money because students aren’t buying the new, healthier food options. The Greenville County school board has asked the state for relief from the new standards that officials called burdensome.

The ban has taken a bite out of fundraisers that sell cookies, candy bars and popcorn. It also affects vendors who provide items for sale in schools.

The changes, enacted to fight childhood obesity, could cost parent, teacher, student associations like Wade Hampton’s, said Debbie Strickland, school improvement council chair for the Wade Hampton PTSA.

The Generals’ store historically has generated $30,000-$40,000 a year to fund after-school tutoring and transportation, vital programs to the school’s academic success for many of its low- to middle-income students, Strickland said.

“We’re going to lose a huge percentage of our revenue,” Strickland said. The store had a variety of healthy items as well as junk food, she said, but “I would say the junk was the better seller.”

While parent-teacher associations across the county are grappling with how to make up for lost sales, the Greenville County school board has drafted a letter to the state Department of Education seeking to waive the restrictions as many days as possible.

But it will be months before the state board makes any changes, said Dino Tepporo, education department spokesman.

The new healthy-eating standards could cost Greenville County Schools $1 million this school year from loss of sales of a la carte items such as Papa Johns pizza and Chick-fil-A sandwiches if nothing changes, said Oby Lyles, school district spokesman.

Those companies, and all outside vendors, have switched to healthier meal options to comply with the new rules. Papa Johns developed a whole wheat pizza with lower-fat cheese while Chick-fil-A uses a whole wheat bun and a smaller chunk of chicken, said Sarah Shockley, a school specialist with LiveWell Greenville, a partnership of Greenville organizations focused on health policies and education.

So far, students are buying fewer of the a la carte items, and the district is down $5,300 a day, Lyles said.

Ironically, those losses are impacting the district’s ability to purchase more nutritious but higher cost local fruits and vegetables, he said.

Advocates of the new healthy eating standards say the nutrition changes are needed to fight the childhood obesity epidemic and to give students the proper fuel they need to engage in learning.

Schools are experiencing the initial shock while trying to figure out how to incorporate healthier options, said Sally Wills, acting executive director of LiveWell Greenville, which has helped schools adapt to the new food rules.

Wills believes students will eventually return to the school stores, and she said clubs and PTAs may turn to non-food fundraisers instead of candy bar or popcorn sales.

Wade Hampton Principal Eric Williams said revenue losses could affect the school’s after-school tutoring program next school year, but the school will comply with the changes.

Schools that participate in federal free and reduced lunch programs don’t really have a choice. The state Department of Education monitors school lunch programs, Tepporo said. Schools would face fines for noncompliance.

The new Smart Snacks in Schools standards stem from the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act to fight childhood obesity that first lady Michelle Obama advocated. The Smart Snacks in Schools program covers all food sold in schools, including vending machines and bake sales.

“We have way too many children who are overweight and obese and that’s just their lifestyle,” said Sarah Shockley, LiveWell Greenville’s school specialist. “We are trying to combat that and give them a better start.”

In 2012, more than one-third of children or adolescents were obese or overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Childhood obesity can lead to lifelong health problems like cardiovascular disease, high cholesterol or high blood pressure, according to the CDC.

Strickland, at Wade Hampton, said she understands the obesity epidemic, but wishes schools would spend more time educating students to make smart decisions rather than adding regulations.

Every school is responsible for making sure each food item sold meets nutritional guidelines. Cookies, doughnuts and chocolate are out. Fruit cups, trail mix and Greek yogurt are in.

The new rules could spell the end of in-school bake sales because it’s difficult to measure nutrition facts on homemade items.

It’s also ending the all-volunteer aspect of Wade Hampton’s school store.

Wade Hampton decided this week to contract with a food nutrition services company to run its store rather than relying on volunteers to read labels and calculate calories, sodium percentages and sugar content to make sure every item in the store complies with the new rules, Strickland said.

“We didn’t want the liability of all that to be on our PTA parents,” she said.

And having an outside contract will eat another slice out of the store’s profit, she said.

Greenville County Schools made drastic changes to its in-school meals on its own before federal rules were put in place, Lyles said. Meals are scratch-made and include more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. The district has been nationally recognized for its nutrition programs, and it’s been successful without these “burdensome regulations,” he said.

The federal law gives state education departments authority over the program and also gives states the ability to decide whether to grant up to 30 waiver days per school each year from the nutrition program.

States have allowed exemptions for one day up to 30 days, according to the School Nutrition Association. The 30 states that haven’t addressed the policy revert to zero waiver days.

So far, South Carolina has not decided to grant any waivers, Tepporo said.

The state education department wants to give flexibility to school districts who request it; it’s just going to take time, Tepporo said.

Once the state board decides on its policy, it would take up to three months for its waiver policy to be finalized and enacted, he said.

The timing could affect school Spirit Weeks - like Eastside and Wade Hampton’s - or sports team fundraisers held in the fall semester.

LiveWell has worked with schools across the district to come up with alternatives to junk food fundraisers.

Some schools have started Boosterthons where students seek sponsorships to run laps; others have turned to Raise Craze where students pledge to do good deeds for donations, Wills said.

There are countless non-food fundraising options, she said. But perhaps the best fundraiser is to just ask for donations, she said.

“As parents and people in the community, we’re being bombarded from every angle with ‘buy this popcorn, go to this restaurant on this night,’” Wills said. “Sometimes people just want to say ‘Can I just give you $5?’”

Fundraising websites like gofundme.org have made it easier than ever to list what you need, why you need it and ask for help, she said.

There will likely be an initial hit on revenues, but the new rules will force teams, clubs and PTAs to get creative, she said.

For students in at-risk schools, where parents and community haven’t instilled healthy food patterns, the nutrition changes could make a big impact, Wills said.

“Some of these kids were eating oatmeal cream pies for lunch,” Shockley said.

And school kids with disposable income may gripe at the loss of their favorite treat from the school store shelves, but they’ll eventually scope out their options and find a different - and healthier - snack to purchase, Shockley said.

Otherwise, she said, those high school students would have to pack their own lunches.


Information from: The Greenville News, https://www.greenvillenews.com

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