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INDUSTRY VIEWPOINT: New school nutrition policy will create healthier environment for students

It was a seemingly rhetorical question: Do we want our school children to have nutritious foods or high-fat, high-sugar foods?

The answer came in the form of the new school nutrition rules announced June 6 by New Jersey Acting Gov. Richard Codey. Those rules, representing the work of many in the Department of Agriculture, set the stage for healthier food choices in our schools.

The best way to drive home the point of good nutrition is to immerse students in the foods that are most nutritious for them. You can't teach about healthy foods and choices in the classroom and then surround students with high-fat, high-sugar snacks.

That determination led to the regulations that will become law once published in the New Jersey Register on June 20. It is the most comprehensive school nutrition policy in the nation, covering pre-kindergarten through 12th grade and limiting fat and sugar content in items offered in a la carte lines, snack bars, vending machines, school stores and as part of on-campus fund-raisers.

Much research and consultation went into crafting this policy. It was the subject of numerous rounds of public comment, and has been posted on the department's web site for almost a year. All the comments made about the policy were given due consideration.

Overall, the comments supported implementation of the policy. Some were worked into the final policy if they benefited the end goal of providing students with better nutrition. Others weren't if they sacrificed improved nutrition for other concerns.

There also is flexibility built into the new rule. This policy does not restrict which foods students can bring to school from home. It takes into account that parents may want to send a treat into a class for a young student's birthday or that ethnic foods that don't meet the fat or sugar limits might be used by a teacher to introduce students to other cultures.

On the issue of poor nutrition and lack of physical activity, which have led to increased obesity and diet-related illness in this country, the school environment should be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Since the department has the authority to introduce regulations to those schools which participate in the federal school meal funding, the limitations were enacted where that authority exists.

While in the school world these approaches to nutrition might seem revolutionary, they are really just a reflection of our society's evolving attitudes toward food and nutrition. There's a reason your local fast-food restaurants have added salads and fruits to their menus; a reason your nearby grocery store is highlighting its fresh produce, bagged salads and organically grown fruits and vegetables. It's because these foods are what consumers want. As the public learns more about food's role in health -- how fruits and vegetables like tomatoes, greens and blueberries can be important components of a healthy diet, how low-fat diets aid in heart health -- the demand for healthier options has increased exponentially.

These changes in schools offer students better choices from among the many delicious, nutritious products that come right from our own Garden State. What parent wouldn't prefer seeing their child choose between blueberries and peaches rather than choosing between candy and fried chips?

That is why we believe in this policy, because we've heard from parents who want to see more nutritious foods offered in the schools. Ultimately, we knew these positive changes would happen because they simply make sense.

Clearly, there are school districts already making this approach work. Districts like South Orange-Maplewood, Lower Township, Washington Township in Gloucester County, Sussex-Wantage, Brick Township and West Windsor-Plainsboro have all led by example and shown that offering healthy choices does not have to leave a dent in the foodservice operating budget.

These are districts that have worked with our Division of Food & Nutrition over the past several years to get ahead of the curve on school nutrition. Similarly, we will work with all school districts over the next two years to make sure they are all prepared to meet the September 2007 deadline for complying with the Model School Nutrition Policy.

We have viewed, and continue to view, ourselves as partners with the school districts in this endeavor. Like those districts that already have made this a reality, we can help the rest make it as well. Just as the policy was developed with input from many groups, so will it be implemented with the help of school officials, teachers, parents, even students themselves.

The new policy is the result of a lot of work by many people -- too numerous to mention here. That same commitment will be carried through to make sure the ideas take shape in our schools, not only through healthy food choices but also through nutrition education and increased physical activity.

The reason is simple: our children's health is just too important for this initiative to be anything but a success.

(Charles M. Kuperus is New Jersey's secretary of agriculture.)