Penn State, Government, Industry Helping Children Pick Healthier Foods

June 25, 2010

Penn State is leading a new initiative to improve children’s nutrition education and increase the amount of healthy foods available in schools. The project is a collaboration among Penn State researchers; Pennsylvania’s Departments of Health, Education, and Agriculture; Pennsylvania food manufacturers and food distributors; and school districts across the state.

The project seeks to improve children’s understanding of nutrition and help them make smarter food choices. Researchers will be increasing the amount of nutrition information available in schools and at home, including several innovative menu labeling systems for use in cafeterias across Pennsylvania. These menu systems will be age appropriate and are intended to target everyone from kindergarteners to high school seniors. Children will have a baseline level of nutrient information at their hands, which will help them make healthier choices. Then, in conjunction with school districts and foodservice providers, Penn State will be testing the effectiveness of the new menu labeling system.

“Penn State, with its tradition in nutrition and food innovation, was the perfect partner to develop and implement these initiatives. The College of Health and Human Development and the Center for Food Innovation are centered on how to improve nutrition for children in Pennsylvania,” says Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Everette James, who is playing a significant role in the project. “The health of children is already important to schools, and now we’re making it the top priority.”

Another major component of the project is finding effective ways to share nutrition information with parents. Dr. Peter Bordi, associate professor of hospitality management and principal investigator on the project, plans to take a multimedia approach by using the internet, new technologies, and old technologies such as informational handouts. “What may work for one school district may not work for another,” says Bordi. This component is designed so that “parents can sit down and teach their children to make healthier choices—in practice, not in theory,” says Secretary James.

Penn State’s Center for Food Innovation (CFI), directed by Bordi, will be working with foodservice organizations to ensure that children have access to healthy, affordable foods in schools. The research team is identifying ten foods that meet or exceed nutrition guidelines for both the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Pennsylvania Department of Health; prices of these foods will be reduced in schools to be more competitive with other foods.

CFI, which regularly performs sensory testing to better understand why people like or dislike certain foods, will be taking its research out of the lab and into schools. Bordi and his team will be testing new foods, created in conjunction with food organizations such as ARAMARK Education; Metz & Associates; and Nutrition, Inc. “The children will be able to give us feedback and help us create appealing, healthy foods—you can’t develop foods for kids if you can’t get their input,” says Bordi.

This project is being launched in conjunction with a new project headed by the Department of Health that is ensuring that children are able to receive at least thirty minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity in school. “The CDC tells us that more than half of chronic disease is preventable and it makes up nearly 75 percent of our health care costs,” says Secretary James. “We’re tackling two of the major factors that lead to chronic disease—poor nutrition and lack of physical education.”

“Ultimately, we hope that children will take this education outside of school so that it can impact their everyday life as well. It’s exciting that we can all make a difference in our children’s lives,” says Bordi.

Penn State faculty involved in the project in addition to Bordi include Dr. David Cranage, associate professor of hospitality management (investigator); Dr. Penny Kris-Etherton, Distinguished Professor of Nutritional Sciences (investigator); and Dr. Megan Small, research associate in the Prevention Research Center for the Promotion of Human Development (investigator).

Foodservice organizations on the project include Benzel’s Pretzel Bakery, Super Bakery, Knouse Foods, Sysco Central Pennsylvania, Metz & Associates, the Nutrition Group, and ARAMARK Education.

The two-year project is funded by an $800,000 grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) through the Pennsylvania Department of Health as part of CDC’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding.

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Editors: Pete Bordi can be reached at PLBJr@psu.edu. For additional information, please contact the College of Health and Human Development Office of College Relations at 814-865-3831 or healthhd@psu.edu.