**This story is part of a youth reporting project between the Fayette Institute of Technology and West Virginia Public Broadcasting. It was written by high school seniors Katie Cameron and Tabitha Gill with support from health reporter Kara Lofton.**
A lot of research says sugar is bad for us, but federal nutritional standards for school meals don’t regulate sugar consumption. And this means some elementary school students in West Virginia are eating a lot of it -- especially for breakfast.
Katie Johnson, a health educator for several Fayette County schools, said one of her goals is to have quality protein at every breakfast because it slows down how quickly the body absorbs sugar.
“My long-term goal in the elementary schools is to have all fresh food. Either made-from-scratch or fresh fruits and vegetables, and maybe eggs and sausage,” she said.
Part of the problem is that some schools in Fayette County share kitchens, which means they don’t always have hot meals for breakfast. And the pre-prepared foods considered a “protein” in school breakfasts, such as yogurt, can have a lot of sugar in them.
For instance, Trix yogurt, one of the breakfast items served, has 14 grams of sugar per serving -- or about half of the daily amount of sugar the American Heart Association recommends for kids under the age of 18.
“The elementary kids at one of the schools I’m at are getting about 52 grams of sugar a day, and that’s about three days a week,” said Johnson.
Two days a week, she said, kids can get a hot meal that’s cooked at a school with a kitchen and then taken to Valley Elementary.
Eating breakfast in the morning has a positive impact on children's behavior and academic performance, according to a 2013 article published in The Frontiers of Human Neuroscience. But we also know that eating lots of added sugar leads to tooth decay and is related to developing diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure later in life.
Yet federal regulations for school breakfast don’t mention sugar.
Kristy Blower is the State Coordinator of the West Virginia Office of Child Nutrition. She said that federal regulations require that all state schools offer a breakfast with at least one grain, a fruit or vegetable, and 1 percent milk or fat-free milk.
All Fayette County schools comply with those regulations and serve the lowest amount of sugar recommended, said Joseph Dooley, the Fayette County schools nutrition director. But for him, sugar isn’t as serious as fat and sodium.
And he bigger issue, he said, is that kids aren’t guaranteed to actually eat the healthier food options they provide.
“It may take a little while for that child to acquire that taste and that desire to choose a better item, ” he said.
Valley Elementary School cook, Kelsey Critchley, also had her doubts about if kids would actually eat healthier food.
“They won’t even eat the corn we put on their trays,” she said.
But some counties like Cabell are moving toward an initiative called “from-scratch cooking.”
Cabell County Schools nutrition director Rhonda McCoy said when they first started, kids struggled to accept the new menus. For her, it was all about consistency.
“As we continued to stick to the course of preparing our meals from scratch, students began accepting the food,” she said.
Blower said the state is encouraging all schools to make their meals from scratch. The idea is to train cooks from around the state to create healthy meals with recipes that follow USDA standards. McCoy said the initiative has helped make food more nutritious for students in Cabell County.
Johnson said she hopes the from-scratch initiative becomes Fayette County’s normal routine as well. But in order for Fayette County to adopt all from scratch cooking, she says the mindset about food needs to change. Starting that change may begin with getting back to basics.
“I think one of the best things that we can do is to start gardening at school,” so kids can know where their food comes from, Johnson said. “We have a small garden at school and the kids love to work on it.”
And as kids become familiar with where their food comes from, she said she hopes that eating healthy, including eating less sugar throughout the day, will become the new norm.
Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from the Marshall Health and Charleston Area Medical Center..