CHICAGO — Getting students to make better food choices during the school day is a vital step to improving eating habits. Unfortunately, although many schools are interested in promoting better nutrition, a variety of obstacles stand in the way, according to a recent report by Action for Healthy Kids.

Helping Students Make Better Food Choices in School chronicles a 2005 project where a dozen Illinois schools tested various approaches to improving students' food choices at school. Initiatives included introducing healthier meals and snacks, repackaging items that were more attractive for kids, adding salad bars to lunchrooms and showing movies to increase participation in school breakfast programs.

The project helped identify what schools will need to successfully implement “wellness policies,” a federal mandate that requires that every school district participating in federal Child Nutrition Programs implement a wellness policy unique for their district by the beginning of the 2006-2007 school year. Each wellness policy must include goals for nutrition education, physical activity and other school-based activities designed to promote student wellness; nutrition guidelines for all foods available on the school campus during the school day; guidelines for school meals that meet federal standards; and a plan for measuring implementation.

“Most of us don't realize the number of challenges schools face as they try to offer more nutritious foods and beverages to their students. This project revealed several common, even daunting challenges, that can impede progress,” said Alicia Moag-Stahlberg, executive director of Action for Healthy Kids.

Resource limitations topped the list. Tight budgets and over-stretched staff make it difficult for schools to take on new projects and purchase new equipment and products. Some healthier food items take more time to prepare and are more expensive to purchase. There also needs to be time devoted to making students, parents, administrators and teachers part of the process in order to gain their support and acceptance, according to the report.

To help districts develop their wellness policies, Action for Healthy Kids offers a free online tool available at www.actionforhealthykids.org.