Toolkit supports moves toward healthy options at school concession stands

Adults with children in youth sports are familiar with the urgent emails that arrive under desperate subject lines like: “Volunteers needed for the concession stand! PLEASE HELP!!!”

For every parent who slips on plastic gloves to handle food or stays late to help clean up, there are other volunteers and administrators working behind the scenes to make sure the booth is adequately staffed, well supplied with the most popular items, and operating profitably.

Concession stands sales at school sporting events are often an important source of funds for student activities, but University of Iowa researchers have found that providing healthy options at concession stands is also good for sales and for customer satisfaction.

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Get the free guide “Improving the Nutrition Environment Through Changing Concession Stand Options: Eight Steps to Making Healthy Improvements”

A new toolkit available from the University of Iowa’s Prevention Research Center (PRC) provides practical assistance to help youth concession stands add healthy options to the menu — and maintain profits. The toolkit, available for free download on the PRC website, will assist groups to determine goals, choose probable changes, devise a purchasing plan, assess the profitability of changes, implement the plan, and keep track of set-backs and benefits of the changes.

“Making sure there are some healthy options available helps the school send a consistent message about healthy eating,” says Helena Laroche, assistant professor of internal medicine. “It also helps families watching the game with healthy options for themselves and their children.”

Previous research by Laroche and colleagues found that concession stand changes to incorporate healthier foods were well received and revenue remained high. Some foods like nacho cheese or popcorn oil were changed (no trans fats, less saturated fat) and other healthy options (chicken sandwiches, granola bars, fruits and vegetables, trail mix) were added to the concession stand menu. Modifying current food options and adding other healthy options has proven to be effective in concession stands, according to Laroche’s research.

For more information on Laroche’s research, see or contact Dr. Laroche at

The University of Iowa Prevention Research Center is one of 26 university-affiliated research centers funded by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to conduct applied public health research. The Iowa PRC, directed by Professor Edith Parker and based the Department of Community and Behavioral Health in the UI College of Public Health, has research themes focusing on nutrition, physical activity, and aging. For more information, visit

Askelson takes part in Communicating Ideas workshop

Natoshia Askelson, assistant professor of community and behavioral health, recently took part in the UI’s Communicating Ideas workshop. Participants gain practical tips for crafting and honing their messages and have an opportunity to record a brief video clip about their research. Askelson discussed how to support children in making fast, easy, and healthy food choices, especially in the lunch room.

CPH student helps connect neighborhood to fresh produce

A plant most people try to rid from their driveways and sidewalks, purslane, is the best-selling item at the new Pheasant Ridge produce stand. The plant is popular with the large Sudanese population living in the Pheasant Ridge apartment complex.

Julia Friberg (MPH ’16), a recent grad from the College of Public Health, conducted a need assessment last semester that helped Local Foods Connection “identify the needs and desires of the community,” said program Executive Director Cassidy Bell.

Read more in the Daily Iowan


Healthier Workforce Center for Excellence produces nutrition training video

healthierworkforcecenterlogoResearchers at the University of Iowa’s Healthier Workforce Center for Excellence (HWCE) have produced a new installment in a series of in-depth training videos focused on Total Worker Health®.

“Nutrition in the Workplace” features nutrition experts and employers discussing good food choices as well as programs, policies, practices, strategies, and interventions to promote healthy eating among employees.

According to Linda Snetselaar, professor of epidemiology and director of the UI’s Nutrition Center, nutrition is an often overlooked aspect of worker health that can also have a big impact on job performance.

“Employees who eat a healthy, well-balanced diet tend to be more productive, more attentive, and safer at work,” Snetselaar says. “The bottom line is that both the employee and the company benefit when a workplace offers healthy food options and emphasizes good nutrition and wellness.”

Other videos in the “In-Depth” series feature segments about ergonomics, transportations safety, and managing stress, along with tips and best practices from experts, employers, and business leaders around the Midwest.

HWCE has also produced a series of Total Worker Health® Essentials videos; 8 short segments where business industry leaders share their experiences with designing, implementing, and evaluating Total Worker Health® programs, practices, and policies. The series is designed to help small businesses utilize innovative techniques to incorporate programs, practices, and policies that can be tailored to their workplace.

To view Total Worker Health and other related videos, visit the Healthier Workforce Center for Excellence web site.

Giving kids a taste for healthy foods

CPH researchers are helping to unpack what works in a program that introduces kids to new foods.

Second-grade students are give cherry tomatoes and cheese cubes to taste-test.Most parents have been pestered for sugary cereal or fat-laden chips during a visit to the grocery store. But what about kids asking for red bell peppers? Or mango?

For many parents, such a request would be nothing short of miraculous. But an Iowa-grown nutrition education program that is now in its second decade has spurred many kids to ask for healthier foods.

Pick a better snack™ was developed by the Iowa Nutrition Network in the Iowa Department of Public Health. With a proven track record, it is becoming a model for other states. Since all states receive funds from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to provide nutrition education for low-income children, it makes sense to replicate the most effective programs.

When the USDA did a large scale evaluation of the Iowa Pick a better snack™ (PABS) program in 2013, the results were clear: The program works.

“What was less clear,” says Doris Montgomery, state coordinator for the Iowa Nutrition Network, “was why it worked.”

Montgomery enlisted the help of Natoshia Askelson, CPH assistant professor of community and behavioral health. Along with a team of graduate students and recent alumni, Askelson is working to unpack which aspects of the PABS program are effective. And that’s not as easy as it might sound.

The program has a lot of moving parts. Understanding which ones are vital to producing positive results will help Montgomery and her peers across the nation to know where to put their funds.

Nutrition Rock Stars

Nutrition educators who visit schools once a month are the hallmark of the program. In addition to in-class time, kids take home bingo cards that encourage them to try different foods and physical activity throughout the month. Children who complete a bingo receive prizes like hacky sacks and Frisbees. Parents receive a newsletter with cooking and shopping tips. The program also has signage in local grocery stores and advertising on billboards.

It’s that class time that the kids remember. Montgomery calls the nutrition educators “rock stars” and says that kids will try things for them that they won’t for their parents or regular teachers.

One of those stars is Judith Dittmar, who leads the program in the seven Council Bluffs elementary schools that are eligible. The curriculum is focused on younger grades, so each month Dittmar visits kindergarten through third-grade classrooms, bringing with her a healthy snack that features a different fruit or vegetable. Recent offerings have included jicama, cranberries, and cauliflower.

A student inspects a new food. Kids are encouraged to touch the food, smell it, and then – hopefully – taste it. The idea is that the more curiosity kids can bring to the experience, the more likely they are to take the final step and eat something new.

“We use positive peer pressure,” says Dittmar, noting that sometimes kids will be cheering for each other to try a food that’s either unfamiliar to them or believed to be “bad.” During her ten years in the position, she has watched a lot of kids overcome preconceived notions about different foods. Blueberries may not be such a hard sell, but spinach and asparagus are tougher.

There are eleven participating sites in the state. These are places where more than 60 percent of a school is eligible for free and reduced lunch. In each location, a school district or county extension office receives funding from the Iowa Nutrition Network School Grant Program to provide nutrition education to schools. Montgomery notes that many schools around the state that are not eligible find alternative funding to cover the program’s expenses and maintain participation because they find the program so valuable.

Pester Power

Iowa has an increasing poverty rate and low national ranking in consumption of fruits and vegetables, meaning kids often lack access to fresh food at home.  Which is where Askelson’s research comes into play. The success of PABS lies, she says, in “pester power” – that age-old talent kids have for getting what they want. In this case, it’s being used to ask for healthier food options.

“We want to be sure they are learning how to be better askers,” Askelson says. After the kids learn about a new food, it’s important that they have the skills to help make that food appear on the family dinner table.

Last summer, two College of Public Health graduate students called parents of children who had participated in the program. One of the interviewers, Julia Friberg, a second year Master of Public Health student from Rockford, Ill., explains, “The questions focused on how children ask for food, grocery shopping habits, and strategizing for food budgets.”

Friberg, whose own interests include community-based participatory research and health disparities, said the experience helped her to hone skills while also gaining a better idea of the current landscape of nutrition and food access issues.

Montgomery says that having an independent evaluator provides more credence to the results. She also appreciates that Askelson has added her own experience in health promotion and community-based initiatives to the table.

The results of Askelson’s research from last summer were used to revise the classroom lessons. Following this summer’s research, another round of revisions will be made with the aim of making PABS as effective as possible.

Maine has already adopted PABS, and Montgomery believes other states will follow suit. With child hunger an ever-growing problem – more than twice as many K-12 students are eligible for free and reduced lunch nationwide as compared to 1980 – finding programs that really help to connect children and families with healthy food is essential. PABS is just one small piece to a larger problem, but it provides kids with knowledge and a hunger for better foods.

This story originally appeared in the spring 2015 issue InSight magazine for alumni and friends of the UI College of Public Health.

Photos by Tom Langdon