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NH panel emphasizes better food choices in schools

By Kathy McCormack
Associated Press Writer / December 8, 2009

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CONCORD, N.H.—A state panel studying childhood obesity prevention recommends that schools serve single-portion, nutrient-dense foods, provide fitness reports on children and take advantage of a program to buy food from local farms.

Half of the 14 recommendations from a panel created by the Legislature last year focus on adopting healthy nutrition and physical fitness practices in schools and after-school programs. The others include suggestions such as listing nutritional content on restaurants' children's menus, making sure children in direct care of the state get enough physical activity and have regular body mass index assessments and emphasizing the importance of walking and bicycling.

The New Hampshire Commission on Prevention of Childhood Obesity noted in its report Tuesday that a separate, previous study made recommendations that didn't address some policy issues. For example, pediatricians were using BMIs and advising children on eating and activity, "but when a child in the Medicaid program was identified as obese, the Medicaid program would not pay for follow-up counseling with a registered dietitian," the commission's report said. Also, the state has no guidelines of its own related to food served in schools.

In recommending nutrient-dense foods -- those that provide students with calories rich in the nutrient content needed to be healthy -- the commission endorses guidelines from the Institute of Medicine or American Heart Association for foods sold in schools other than those regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to create healthier choices.

It cited the Gilford School District as having a balanced program, with packaged snacks, meat and beans containing no more than 35 percent of calories from fat; low-fat dairy products with less than 32 grams of total sugar per 8-ounce serving; 100 percent fruit and vegetable juices; and size limits for ice cream and trail mixes.

One recommendation suggests increasing the number of schools in the New Hampshire Farm to School program, which buy food from farms in the state. The report noted that Laconia's Woodland Heights Elementary School is providing 600 to 700 pieces of fruit or vegetables a day to students for free. In Coos County, schools in Stewartstown and Colebrook are buying local carrots and tomatoes from the North Country Farm Fresh Cooperative.

The state doesn't keep track of how many obese children there are. But a study it did in 2006 found nearly one-third of surveyed children ages 6 to 12 were overweight or obese.

The commission notes that more than 70 percent of children in New Hampshire are insured through the private sector and that about 60,000 receive insurance through Medicaid. It recommends Medicaid and private insurers allow a minimum of four registered dietitian visits, if clinically recommended, for all children with high BMI screenings.

It also recommends that student BMIs be assessed every year in school. It noted a successful screening program for 216 students at Pine Tree Elementary School in Center Conway. The school nurse sends the results home to parents so they can be aware if follow-up is needed with a pediatrician.

The commission was assisted by a nonprofit group, the Foundation for Healthy Communities.