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W.Va. shifts focus of school parties off of food, encourages more physical activity

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- If you're a student in West Virginia schools, you can have your cake and eat it, too. Just don't share it with your friends.

Parents cannot send baked goods to their child's class for his or her birthday or for any other celebration. No Thanksgiving potluck at school. No candy distributed during Halloween or Valentine's Day -- unless it is appropriately packaged, under 200 calories and its total fat does not exceed 35 percent of the product's calories.

While the policy has been part of the West Virginia Standards for School Nutrition since 2008, the state department of education is pushing for county food service coordinators, teachers and parents to take it seriously.

"A parent can send anything they want for their own child's consumption -- they can pack whatever they want in their student's lunch as unhealthy as it may be. But they can't send it for the general population," said Rick Goff, executive director of the state Office of Child Nutrition.

"It's really a great provision. It's not meant to Big Brother the school systems or take the fun out of parties. We have so many students with special dietary needs, and it's a safety concern when you don't know under what conditions food is prepared."

The policy is part of a statewide effort to combat childhood obesity and poor eating habits. The code also lays out rules for snack options and meal times.

Teachers cannot be fined for allowing parties with food to happen in their classrooms, but federal funding for that day can be recovered, Goff said.

"If we go in and see candy in the vending machines, the school is required to pay the amount comparable to the federal reimbursement they would've gotten that day," he said.

In 2010, a federally mandated report cited several Kanawha County schools for violating the policy during a one-week monitoring of the nutrition program.

The branch of the USDA that conducted the review demanded that Nitro High School discontinue the practice of allowing outside vendors and fast food providers to deliver lunch to students during the school day and stop allowing parents to bring lunch to students who weren't their own.

In the same report, Sharon Dawes Elementary School on Cabin Creek was cited for planning a Valentine's Day fundraiser that allowed students to send and receive "candy-grams" with lollipops attached.

Sissonville High School was reprimanded for selling pizza during school time as part of a fundraiser.

Tammy Walker, Kanawha County's child nutrition coordinator, said her department is continuing to encourage teachers to shift the focus at parties off of food.

"The state encourages us to get kids moving more with school parties. We've had them play Dance Dance Revolution and we try to get them to socialize instead of just eat. If they do serve food, it should be healthy snacks," Walker said.

"Families in West Virginia like to cook and celebrate with food. Our state has a lot stronger food rules than other states. So, that's hard."

Nutrition coordinators go on random unannounced trips to monitor schools but, for the most part, they rely on the school cooks to inform them of any nutrition deficiencies, Walker said.

That's harder to do when the food is being served in classrooms.

"When we aren't called in to check on a complaint, we rely on cooks and administrators to tell us what's happening in the schools with food. We want to do what the state asks us, but sometimes rules are tough," she said. "We want to encourage wellness and benefit kids as much as we can, but principals have to take the lead."

Walker said the solution to healthier kids is simple.

The state of West Virginia does not require daily physical education or activity in schools, and state Superintendent of Schools Jorea Marple has been pushing for teachers to add 15 extra minutes of P.E. in schools.

"Everyone wants kids to be healthy, but I'll be honest, as a dietician, we're not going to solve obesity until P.E. is back in schools regularly. We used to have P.E. every day. Health is a dual thing, not just about food," she said.

Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5100.


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