Checking in on the YMCA's Healthy Eating standards


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The Y.M.C.A. announced in late 2011 that it would start encouraging adolescents to eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains and to drink more water as well as offer them education on healthy eating. It adopted these Healthy Eating standards in all its after-school programs in the United States as a result of discussions the Y had with First Lady Michelle Obama and the Partnership for a Healthier America, a nonprofit group dedicated to supporting Mrs. Obama’s campaign to reduce childhood obesity.

There was to be, however, somewhat of a catch. The standards were to be voluntary, reported The New York Times in November 2011. At the time, "Neil Nicoll, president and chief executive of the Y.M.C.A. of the U.S.A., said the national organization could not impose them on chapters," reported The Times, "but Mr. Nicoll [added] that they had been developed in consultation with Y leaders around the country, and that he expected 85% of chapters to comply."

So how are things going five years later? According to a new study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, researchers found South Carolina YMCAs lacking in compliance with the Healthy Eating standards.

Researchers from the University of South Carolina, University of Kentucky, and Wake Forest School of Medicine observed snack time in a stratified sample of 20 YMCA-operated after-school programs in South Carolina during the 2014-15 school year.

The programs were visited on four nonconsecutive, unannounced days to record the types of food and beverages served as snacks, how snacks were served and how the staff engaged with the children. Also noted were staff-eating behaviors.

Out of the 20 YMCAs studied, five served fruit and vegetables every day, six served water daily, five served no sugar-sweetened beverages and nine served no sugar-sweetened food. Additionally, two served whole grains when serving a grain as a snack. Just three after-school programs had staff verbally promoting healthy eating and the same number delivered health education. Five served snacks family-style. Only a single program had 100% compliance for staff verbally promoting healthy eating, sitting with children during snack and delivering education every day.

Although the estimates of food and beverages served at after-school programs run by the YMCA were similar or higher to those reported in previous studies, the inability of the programs to achieve the standards and highlights the difficulty of implementing Healthy Eating guidelines in full. The researchers concluded that additional assistance is necessary to help practitioners fully achieve the goal of meeting all Healthy Eating standards.