Many parents and Washoe County School District (WCSD) teachers do not like Nevada’s school wellness policy.
The policy was enacted because of a federal law passed in 2010 and is based on prior legislation. Each school district is required to develop a local school wellness policy, according to the Nevada Department of Agriculture (NDA).
Advocates for the policy said that the intention is to give students access to better quality food. Wellness policy snacks must meet certain nutritional requirements.
“The intent of these standards is not to limit popular snack items, but instead to make healthier snack items available to students,” according to a state document.
The policy is endorsed by a number of public agencies, including: the Nevada Department of Education, the Nevada Parent Teacher Association and the Nevada Dietetic Association.
The policy applies to snacks sold and served at schools.
“Due to the possibility of serious, even life-threatening food allergies, students must not provide food items to other students,” said WCSD spokesperson Victoria Campbell. “This policy does not apply to items that are packed in a personal snack or lunch, provided those items are not shared with other students.”
“As the policy has rolled out in force, and its effect is being felt by teachers, students and families not just at our school but across the district, its many, MANY flaws are becoming apparent.”
Teachers are not happy with the policy.
“I think the wellness policy is horrible,” commented first-grade teacher Jennifer Elicegue. “The wellness policy has the right idea but definitely the wrong implementation. Since when are pop tarts, baked hot Cheetos and and other processed junk food better than a homemade cookie?”
Another teacher from a local high school, who wished to comment anonymously, said: “As a teacher, it was upsetting to me to learn about all of the multicultural events that include food are now a thing of the past … and teachers are being threatened with a $125,000 fine.”
An elementary school teacher, also commenting anonymously, called the policy a nightmare: “(There is) difficulty in finding the snacks on the list, (and I’m) not convinced that the decision was made for real change.”
Parents also expressed frustration with the policy.
“I think it is pretty ridiculous as a parent,” said Danielle Dailey. “I’m upset that my child will not experience school functions and parties how I did as a child.”
Despite a public call for comments pro or con on the ThisisReno Facebook page, there were little to no statements in support of the policy.
The Nevada Department of Agriculture (NDA) contacted ThisisReno last week after we cross-posted an opinion article about Nevada’s School Wellness Policy.
The article, titled “Why I’m unhappy with the Nevada School Wellness Policy,” outlined a number of frustrations with the policy. It was written by a parent on the Reno Moms Blog.
“As the policy has rolled out in force, and its effect is being felt by teachers, students and families not just at our school but across the district, its many, MANY flaws are becoming apparent. And a great many people, myself included, are not fans,” wrote Jessica Santina, a professional writer / editor and an adjunct faculty member at the University of Nevada, Reno.
The article was based on a letter from the WCSD, parent and teacher reactions, NDA’s online documents and a newsletter from a teacher.
NDA representative Rebecca Allured, speaking on behalf of Catrina Peters, NDA’s school nutrition services manager, said that the Reno Moms Blog post had misleading and inaccurate information, including:
- What snacks are allowed on the school wellness policy’s list
- An alleged fine amount of $125,000 if schools are not in compliance with the policy and
- Snacks exceptions for special occasions.
The Snacks List
While the gist of the article expressed frustration with the kinds of items allowed on the smart snacks list, NDA said that’s not the whole picture.
“There are all kinds of items that would meet the smart snacks requirements,” according to Peters. “The list was just the most comprehensive examples of packaged (and) processed items we could come up with, at the request of the Wellness Policy Stakeholder Group, provided as a tool for schools (with student stores, fundraisers and vending machines in mind).”
Moreover, according to Peters, “we’ve committed to updating the Smart Snacks List a minimum of (two times) a year, but it’s been about monthly at least. It was just updated two days ago (on Feb. 23, 2016). To reiterate, the list is not (a) list of the only foods that can be served.”
Here are some of the items on the recently updated list:
“The list was just the most comprehensive examples of packaged (and) processed items we could come up with, at the request of the Wellness Policy Stakeholder Group, provided as a tool for schools.”
— Catrina Peters, Nevada Department of Agriculture
While the state’s list may not be comprehensive, schools are linking directly to NDA’s lists as a reference for parents and teachers. Peavine Elementary’s web page links to the NDA documents.
The state is clear to say that the federal requirements are designed to provide more healthy options to students. But parents and teachers are frustrated by the NDA’s recently updated list that contains foods many consider to be unhealthy.
NDA said, however, that there are other healthier items available, such as fresh fruit, organic applesauce and vegetables, and Peters said teachers can use this online calculator to determine if a snack is meets the smart snack requirements.
Teachers said that is cumbersome, confusing and the list has snacks that are not easily purchased.
“Lots of people can’t find any of these products,” wrote one teacher.
Another said, “Doing a pizza party is pretty tough at this point. We’d have to have whole grain (rich) crust, and most pizza places won’t do that.”
NDA said that the $125,000 fine reported by the Reno Moms Blog is inaccurate, and it would not elaborate on what amount schools could be fined. Rather, the agency said that the state could withhold, as a last resort, federal funding from schools that are not in compliance with the school wellness policy.
ThisisReno asked what amount could be fined, or withheld.
“We never said we were going to fine (the Washoe County School District), so there is not an amount to disclose,” said Peters. “Our goal is to provide as much assistance as we can to get them in compliance with USDA requirements.”
Peters added, citing the federal 2010 law, that “the term ‘fine’ is inaccurate. NDA would not fine schools. We are not here to be a financial barrier, only to help the school district come into compliance with USDA requirements. The only financial penalty that would ever be implemented, as a last resort, would be the withholding of those federal reimbursements until they have reached compliance, which would be determined at the time of assessment.”
Even though ThisisReno told NDA its own manual mentions possibly fining schools, the department denied this was the case.
“Nowhere in the manual or best practices does it say that the NDA will fine schools,” Peters said. “Under current Federal Regulations, since (the) Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010, we do not have fining authority for wellness policy violations.”
The Nevada’s School Wellness Policy Best Practices Manual (page 28) lists an example of how school districts “may establish penalties for school non-compliance with their (Local School Wellness Policy).
“School districts may choose to pass along any fines/penalties from the state agency to the schools that were in violation of Nevada’s school wellness policy.” [Emphasis added.]
Other state wellness policies also reference penalties for non-compliance. The federal law (section 303, A) says that,
“The Secretary shall establish criteria by which the Secretary or a State agency may impose a fine against any school food authority or school administering a program authorized under this Act or the Child Nutrition Act of 1966 (42 U.S.C. 1771 et seq.) if the Secretary or the State agency determines that the school food authority or school has—(i) failed to correct severe mismanagement of the program; (ii) disregarded a program requirement of which the school food authority or school had been informed; or (iii) failed to correct repeated violations of program requirements.”
The law goes on to cite percentages of reimbursements that schools can be fined based on the number of program violations.
UPDATE: NDA added after publication, that “per the USDA administrative review manual, which is essentially the rule book we follow, we do not have authority to issue fines. The only fiscal action we can take would be in the form of withholding federal reimbursement until they are in compliance, as a last resort.”
ThisisReno contacted the WCSD to find out why a teacher would claim that amount.
Spokesperson Victoria Campbell said, “The Nevada Department of Agriculture does have the ability to impose financial sanctions if a school violates the state or federal regulations that govern food provided on school campuses.
“However, the WCSD staff has worked closely with the NDA, while communicating information to principals and families regarding the wellness policies and regulations, and is working hard to follow policies and regulations on all campuses,” she added.
One teacher said that her principal relayed the information about potential fines during a school staff meeting.
“We were told this in a staff meeting by the principal,” the teacher said. “She’s a great boss, but she had to say this is what’s come down from on high.”
To express an opinion about these aspects of the policy, as the Reno Moms Blog did, on a website devoted to providing and sharing information of interest to moms therefore seems reasonable, especially since official documents reference possible fines for schools if they are not compliant with the policy.
Each district can create exceptions to the smart snacks list for special occasions. According to NDA, “Each school district must establish a policy that outlines which special occasions or holidays and the frequency that foods that exceeding [sic] established nutrition parameters may be allowed.”
On this point, the Reno Mom’s Blog made it sound like there were no exceptions, and WCSD has not yet finalized such criteria. According to a WCSD fact sheet, the school district is working to finalize its policy.
“The committee is now in the process of completing its work, and the regulation will receive a final review by Superintendent Davis in the next several weeks,” said Campbell. “The committee and the District understand there has been concern among parents and students regarding the lack of ‘special occasion’ days at schools during this review and development period, but the committee took the time it needed to ensure that the proposed regulation would meet the needs of students as they grow and learn.”
Some teachers said, however, that they will not allow any snacks due to the complexity of the policy and the time it would take to police the policy’s requirements.
“I have teacher friends at other schools who tell me that their schools are not following it, also,” said first-grade teacher Jennifer Elicegui.
A parent added: “At my son’s school, they have just stopped the parties/rewards with food altogether. Ridiculous.”
While some of the information in the Reno Moms Blog article may not have been entirely accurate, the writer relied on official sources for information and seems to have expressed an opinion based on those sources. What information was not accurate, she quickly corrected as an addendum to the article.
It’s true that information about Nevada School Wellness Policy is muddied, but that doesn’t appear to be the fault of the Reno Moms Blog.
NDA refused to elaborate on how the fines or penalties would be assessed because it claims they would never exist in the first place. Its own policy and federal law suggest otherwise.
WCSD said that it is communicating the policy to its personnel, but the policy appears to be miscommunicated or misperceived. It is unclear where the misinformation originated.
In the meantime, teachers and parents alike are unhappy with Nevada’s school wellness policy.
Sources told ThisisReno that teachers are simply rejecting the policy by not having parties or allowing food to be brought into classrooms, confirming what the Reno Moms blog wrote: “Many are so gun shy they are refusing to allow any parties at all.”
A local first-grade teacher echoed that statement.
“The general reaction is that it’s a nuisance. Not a lot of anger, just annoyance,” she said. “It’s problematic for us. The draw of a pizza party is the difference of students making an effort or not. It doesn’t take class time away. Food means they’re loved and cared for.”
High school teacher Michael Hale agreed.
“I work at a lower income school where the students are hungry and appreciate what we provide,” he wrote. “We now provide nothing for the students so as not to jeopardize our careers.”