Healthy snacks, healthy kids

An apple a day helps keep childhood obesity at bay. A banana works, too — or just about any other fruit or vegetable.

It’s no secret that incorporating healthier snacks into children’s diets results in healthier children and, more specifically, and plays a role in lowering rates of childhood obesity. The problem is in delivering those healthier snacks to children, particularly when those children are enrolled in after-school programs with limited resources.

Enter University of South Carolina Arnold School of Public Health professor Michael Beets and a simple but effective solution.

“Children spend a large portion of their time in after-school and summer day camp programs, and these programs, on a national level, have been called on to be one of a part of the solution for childhood obesity,” says Beets.

Beets recently oversaw a pair of related studies on the outcomes of increased physical activity and healthy after-school snack programs at Columbia-area YMCAs. Like other similar programs, the YMCA programs have been instructed by their parent organization at the national level to meet stricter dietary guidelines.

“It’s not a matter of going from regular Lay’s potato chips to Baked Lay’s,” Beets says. “It’s, ‘You need to serve a fruit and vegetable every day — and by the way, you also need to eliminate sugar-sweetened beverages and sugar-based foods.’”

But policy and practice are often miles apart, he says.

“Programs really struggle with meeting these goals. That’s where we come in and work with them to help bring their level of practice up to where it meets these national policies and standards.”

The solution? Partner with area grocery stores to get price discounts on healthier snack options, including items such as fruits and vegetables, unflavored pretzels and string cheese, which meet healthy eating standards.

After-school programs like the YMCA’s typically spend 30 to 40 cents per snack, per child, per day, according to Beets. While that might not sound like a fortune, the costs add up when a program enrolls 100 children 180 days a year. And unfortunately, the unhealthy snacks many programs have traditionally doled out also tend to be the cheaper option.

“You get what you pay for, “says Beets. “A healthy snack will never be the same price as an unhealthy snack unless we subsidize something somewhere, but what we can do, and what we’ve demonstrated, is that using our collaborative community partnerships with local grocery stores, these grocery stores can provide a price discount for items that conform to the healthy eating standards and that allow programs to stay within their budget.”

In return, grocery stores get access to a new customer base and good PR while still turning a profit. Because many after-school and summer programs operate as not-for-profit entities, the stores can also benefit from tax write-offs.

But will kids who are used to loading up on chips, cookies and sugary soda even eat the healthier snacks?

“Most people think that we’re just going to create healthier trashcans because kids will throw this stuff away,” says Beets. “What we’ve found is that, one, they don’t do that, and, two, snacks come at a time when it’s been a couple hours since lunch and you’ve probably got a couple hours before dinner. Most kids are hungry and are going to eat what you put in front of them. They also enjoy it.”

And that’s not purely anecdotal evidence. Beets’ healthy snack study took place over a two-year period during which children’s eating habits were closely observed and charted by Arnold School researchers. At the end of the study, more than 80 percent of the children were observed consuming 50 percent or more of the fruit and 79 percent of the dairy products served.

The success of the strategy is still contingent upon programs reaching out to private partners, of course, but according to Beets, that shouldn’t be much of an obstacle now that its effectiveness has been demonstrated to all parties.

“It’s exciting because it doesn’t rely on us anymore,” says Beets. “This is something that’s very scalable, and we’re now on the verge of rolling it out across the state. What we’ve been doing locally, we’d like to do this at stores throughout South Carolina. It’s going to have a life long after I’m gone.”

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