Fans attending high school football games this fall in Portland, Maine, were in for a surprise - especially the ones craving a tray of warm nachos and a cold Mountain Dew.

 

Fans attending high school football games this fall in Portland, Maine, were in for a surprise - especially the ones craving a tray of warm nachos and a cold Mountain Dew. A new school district policy has removed the cheesy treat, sugary drinks and other unhealthful items such as potato chips from not only classrooms and school vending machines but concessions stand menus, too. Some traditional fan favorites have been replaced by such suggested fare as reduced-fat string cheese, juice with no added sweeteners and even hummus.

As Portland Public Schools explained on its website when announcing the changes in August, the new food policies "recognize that diet influences students' ability to learn, and they aim to ensure that food offered at schools and school events support[s] student achievement." All food served during the school day must now meet the minimum "Gold Award" nutrition criteria set forth in the United States Department of Agriculture's HealthierUS Schools Challenge. That means calories from total fat should be at or below 35 percent per serving, calories from saturated fat should be less than 10 percent per serving, sodium in non-entrée items should be less than 480 milligrams and portion sizes should not exceed the suggested serving size. (That also means no birthday cupcakes or ice cream parties.)

Similarly, all beverages must adhere to the Alliance for a Healthier Generation's High School Beverage Guidelines, which call for low- or no-calorie drinks or other drinks containing up to 66 calories per eight ounces served in containers no larger than 12 ounces.

Slightly looser food standards apply before and after the school day. For example, if a football concessions stand sells hot dogs, it should also sell real fruit. "You can have pizza, but try to make it whole grain and lower-fat cheese," Chanda Turner, school health coordinator for PPS, told Fox News Radio. "It's a much more complicated formula [for nachos]. If you're talking about a tortilla chip that's baked, if you're talking about a cheese sauce made more naturally, perhaps with low-fat [cheese], I could see where you might be able to get nachos that meet [the guidelines]. But you'd have to do a lot of work to do that."

With more school districts likely to follow Portland's lead, booster clubs are bound to be affected, according to Steve Beden, executive director of the Kennewick, Wash.-based National Booster Club Training Council (known until recently as the North American Booster Club Association).

"My compliments to Portland for stepping into the line of fire, because things have to change," Beden says, recognizing the need for healthier choices. "But the majority of concessions stands at high school sporting events are run by booster clubs, and concessions is a very strong revenue generator for those clubs. If boosters are forced to make major changes overnight, I'm afraid the ripple effect is that concessions stands might lose support."



While Portland's policies were greeted with mixed reactions - as evidenced by reader comments posted to a Portland Press Herald editorial praising, in particular, the soft drink ban - PPS is not alone in its efforts to take on obesity and other nutritional concerns at the concessions stand.

As of this writing, the wellness policy at Durham (N.C.) Public Schools that has been in place for approximately six years was under review, with changes being considered that could require at least three healthy options on concessions menus. And beginning in August, in an effort to follow the NuVal® Nutritional Scoring System developed by the Hy-Vee grocery store chain to encourage healthier eating, public high schools in Mankato, Minn., began selling turkey dogs and pizzas with whole wheat crust.

"We know that cutting back on some of those traditional product groups is going to make revenue go down - there's just no way it's not going to," Beden says, citing potential decreases in both the cost-effectiveness of some healthful menu options and spending by fans who opt to carry in their own goodies or wait until after the game to pick up a stuffed-crust pie from Pizza Hut on the way home.

Beden suggests that school districts wanting to add healthful menu options consult with booster club leaders who oversee concessions operations, find out what kind of impact new policies would have on those operations and ask for their input about the best ways to implement change. Perhaps a transitional period of 12, 18 or even 24 months will be needed, during which concessions stands might sell, say, locally made sub sandwiches on whole wheat bread and individual packages of reduced-fat string cheese on a trial basis to gauge fan interest and revenue.

Other healthier choices recommended by Portland Public Schools and the NBCTC's "Concession Best Practices Guide" include whole-grain soft pretzels, fruit cut into bite-size pieces, sunflower seeds (already a winner at Little League facilities), baked potato chips, certain granola bars, 100 percent juice popsicles, air-popped popcorn and cups of noodles. (To obtain a free copy of the council's guide, send an email to marketing@boosterclubs.org.)

"What we've found in almost all cases in which districts and booster clubs work together is that they build a successful model - because they've got involvement and they've got understanding - versus just making changes to programs, which creates a backlash," Beden says. "The school district is dealing with an independent parent organization, which in most cases is a tax-exempt or nonprofit group with its own officers. It's a lot easier to work in harmony with that group."

In all fairness to Portland Public Schools, Turner told local reporters that the district's new food and beverage policies have been in the works for five years, and they do allow the district to now receive a $90,000 federal obesity prevention grant.

To help students, parents and high school sports fans better understand the changes put in place, the district also posted online several documents explaining the new food rules - including a flow chart that takes into consideration almost every conceivable scenario in which food and beverages are sold or served on school property. Plus, officials stress that the nutrition policies do not apply to such non-school groups as community athletic leagues using schools outside of the school day or to non-school groups providing concessions at school events that take place off campus.

"We are not making any restrictions on personal choice. The only thing we are affecting is what we as a school system [are] going to sell or provide," Turner told Fox News Radio reporter Todd Starnes. "It's not a complete restriction on anything considered non-healthy. We didn't want to go too far."

But they went far enough to prove that significant modifications are possible. "I definitely think this is going to become a national issue," Beden says. "It's already being discussed in communities around the country. And I'm excited to push forward with change and the opportunity for school districts to interact with parent groups."