Based on a press release written by Kym Pokorny, August 2016, and edited by Ann Marie Murphy

 

Morghan Gifford forgoes unhealthy food for watermelon after helping to promote healthy snacks. Photo: Kelly McLaughlin.

My best friend and I would head to her house after school for a clandestine snack: a frozen Twinkie –maybe an occasional Ding Dong – and grape juice. Neither were in my family’s pantry, so it always felt like an extra special treat. 4-H kids in Union County would not approve of my youthful snacking habits and they likely would try to persuade the younger me to switch to healthier foods.

As part of a project for their 4-H club called Students Now Advocating to Create (Healthy Snacking) Zones, or SNACZ, club members wanted to create healthy “snack zones.” The students worked with six “corner stores” to have some chips, candy and other high-fat, high-sugar foods replaced with nutritious foods.

The SNACZ program provides youth with leadership opportunities. In the process, the kids:

  • Promote healthy snacking among their peers and parents
  • Advocate for changes in school policies and practices to support healthy snacking
  • Collaborate with local food store owners to promote healthy snacks in the stores

“In light of the obesity and diabetes crisis in this country, we felt like this was an important role for the kids to play, especially in our rural communities,” said David Melville, Oregon State University Extension Service 4-H program coordinator in Union County.

The kids, who are in fourth through eighth grade, work with their schools to encourage healthy snacks at fundraisers, classroom parties and concession stands. Unlike school cafeterias, U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Smart Snacks in Schools nutrition guidelines don’t apply to those situations.

Led by 4-H leaders and program staff, the students spoke to teachers, store owners and at school board meetings to get the project up and running. They promoted the program with coupons, tastings, giveaways and contests.

“We wanted to be involved, to do something for the kids’ sake,” said Robbyn Ludwig, co-owner of Elgin Store where one of the SNACZ zones was installed. “A lot of junk goes out with kids, so it’s nice to have the stores involved in trying to get them to eat healthier.”

Nancy Findholt, professor at the Oregon Health & Science University school of nursing, has been researching the factors that influence childhood obesity in Union County for 12 years. She’s found that the corner stores, which are close to schools, were frequently visited by students during breaks and after school to buy unhealthy snacks.

“Schools and nearby stores have a strong influence on kids’ eating habits, said Findholt, who heads up the project that’s funded by a grant through the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. “We wanted to turn it around and make those habits healthy, so we decided to get the kids involved in outreach and try to bring about changes.”

Snacking has become increasingly common among children. In the 1970s, children consumed an average of one snack a day, according to Findholt. Today, they are consuming nearly three snacks a day, and snacking now accounts for about 27 percent of children’s daily calories. Not all snacking is bad, though. Young children should eat small amounts throughout the day to keep up their energy level. The same holds true for active older children.

“Unfortunately, most of the snack foods and beverages that children consume are high in saturated fat, sugar and salt, but low in in nutrients,” Melville said.

Though she is in the earlier stages of measuring the program’s impact, Findholt has already found promising results. Surveys of teachers showed a trend toward healthier snacks as classroom rewards, and their knowledge of nutrition has increased compared to schools in a control group

“We were hoping to see improvements in classroom rewards, but hadn’t anticipated the effect on teachers’ nutrition knowledge,” she said. “It was exciting to see that teachers had learned about nutrition from their students’ advocacy efforts.”

Healthy snacks are promoted by Union County elementary and middle school students in Cove, Elgin, Imbler, North Powder and Union. The program wraps up this summer.

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