Snacking in school. It doesn't sound like something one might turn into a crusade.
But when Alison Moro lost that privilege in fifth grade, her mom took up the cause. Armed with the backing of Alison's pediatrician, health experts and even her school district's own wellness policy, Monika Moro spent a month persuading officials in Lombard Elementary District 44 that all students should be allowed to munch on a healthy snack.
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In Alison's case, that's often a pear, grapefruit or even a pomegranate that helps her concentrate and makes her less likely to overeat or snack on sugary foods later.
"I don't believe it's optional," Moro said. "It is in the best interests of students to have a snack."
Nutrition experts back that up, saying children should not go more than four or five hours without eating. But a look at other suburban school districts shows that snack policies often are vague or unevenly enforced.
If there's one constant concerning snacking rules in suburban schools, it's that they tend to be vague, varying from classroom to classroom; wellness policies may allow "healthy snacks" without defining "healthy." Schools may fail to specify which ages of students are allowed snacks. And it's often a challenge to find an administrator who can explain what the policy on snacking is.
St. Charles Unit District 303, for example, has a wellness policy, but "as far as managing snacks, it's up to individual principals," spokesman Jim Blaney said. "I don't think they try to over-police it, but they do encourage the kids to bring healthy snacks."
A lack of regulation of morning snacks by the National School Lunch program allows districts to determine for themselves whether a pre-lunch nosh should be allowed, based on factors such as the availability of breakfast at school and the timing of lunch periods, said Kim Kramer, a registered dietitian with the Illinois Dietetics Association.
While districts can make their own decisions about morning snacks, Kramer said she recommends them, especially because some students don't eat the meal commonly called the most important of the day -- breakfast.
"It helps (kids) with concentration," said Kramer, whose specialties include childhood nutrition and menu planning. "They shouldn't be going more than four to five hours without food."
She said districts can allow morning snacks to hold kids over, or they can go the route of Carpentersville-based Community Unit District 300, which offers breakfast and lunch at each school.
"We don't really have them bring snacks because they have the opportunity to eat breakfast before school starts," said Meriann Besonen, District 300's director of finance. "My feeling was we ought to provide them the opportunity to have a full meal instead of a snack."
That's fine, Kramer says, as long as meal times aren't too many hours apart.
When kids go too long without eating, they tend to overeat at certain meals, Kramer said. "(Healthy snacking) helps prevent them from overeating at certain meals or even overeating in late-night snacks when they're home and they're bored."
The wellness policy in Lombard District 44 lists 20 encouraged snacks -- such as fruits, vegetables, yogurt, pretzels, mini bagels or cheese sticks -- and five no-nos -- including chips, cookies, candy, cake and pop -- but it does not detail if the policy applies to all students in the K-8 district.
Maura Zinni, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, said the district encourages healthy snacks in kindergarten through fifth grade. She said most elementary classes allow snacks, although teachers are given autonomy to decide if a snack break is appropriate.
Lombard's snack guidelines allow a broader menu of foods than students can bring into Lincolnshire-Prairie View District 103, which sent a letter in August saying only cheese, yogurt, fruits and vegetables make the cut.
Arlington Heights District 25's wellness policy "allows the consumption of healthy snacks at school," but does not specify which foods count as healthy.
Kramer said healthy snacks should include two food groups, and she suggests pairings such as whole wheat crackers with string cheese, a fruit and grain bar with milk, or a mini whole wheat bagel with fruit.
District 25's policy does not say which grades in the K-8 district are allowed snacks, but officials say they recognize the importance of consistency.
"We certainly don't want some children to have access to snacks and water and other children not to have access," said Renee Zoladz, assistant superintendent for personnel.
Lombard parent Moro corresponded for about a month with school and district officials, asking the district to apply its wellness policy consistently and allow morning snacks in her daughter's class at Monor Hill School.
Principal Rob Schultz said Moro is the first parent to bring up a concern about snacking. He said he met with teachers and decided to change procedures so all classrooms, including Alison's, would be open to morning snacking sometime between the 8:40 a.m. start of school and the 11:35 a.m. or noon lunch periods.
"Right now at Manor Hill, everybody is having a snack," Schultz said. "In the past it was a teacher decision. We're always open to ideas and suggestions."
Moro said she is satisfied with the change, but disappointed it took so much time and effort on her behalf for her child to be allowed a morning snack, something she sees as a common-sense practice for growing children and a right under the district's wellness policy.
"Parents still should speak for their children and the school should respect that," Moro said. "As long as it's reasonable."