If the U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t act soon, the food sold in school vending machines and on a la carte lunch lines could go unregulated until the 2015-16 school year.
The USDA has until June 30 to issue rules, and because of the federal regulatory process, even rules issued by then would not take effect until the 2014-15 school year—but that’s better than waiting two full school years, school nutrition advocates say.
The turnaround time would be something like warp speed for any federal agency: The USDA issued proposed regulations in February and accepted comments through April.
USDA has been sifting through 250,000 comments about the proposal, and the agency has to weigh all of those opinions with nutrition science and overarching concerns about children’s health before issuing something that schools would have to abide by. Food companies are among the opiners, too, and their thoughts about their ability to make products that meet USDA rules get factored in as well.
The proposal would require all items sold in school stores, vending machines, and a la carte lunch lines to be largely made out of whole grains, fruit, vegetables, dairy, or protein; naturally include nutrients like calcium or potassium; and have limited calories, salt, and fat. Food sold in the regular lunch line could be sold a la carte every day if meets proposed rules about sugar and fat or these items could be be sold daily if they are a part of school meals that day or any day within four days of appearing on the menu. (Health advocates worry schools would still be able to serve pizza and fries every day because school lunch menus are often on a regular cycle.) In elementary school, water, milk, and 100-percent-fruit and -vegetable juices would be the only drinks allowed. High schools could serve low- and no-calorie sodas and flavored waters, too, but only with a maximum of 60 or 75 calories per 12 ounces—USDA asked folks to weigh in on which they prefer.
And lawmakers’ opinions have to be considered, too. (Remember that when USDA tried to regulate the potatoes out of school lunches, Congress overrode it.)
Last week, Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., and Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nevada, wrote to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack about the snack food rules.
They want the USDA to be sure to consider “the real-world cost implications that must be taken into account before adding new requirements” to schools. Kline, chairman of the House Education committee (of which Heck is a member), says that school lunch budgets are already suffering because of the rollout of new rules about school meals this year. They’re pushing for the rules USDA issues to be only temporary and adjustable.
A few studies show that schools wouldn’t lose money if they switched to more healthful snack fare, including this one from about a year ago. A May study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest looking specifically at the shift away from sodas concludes the same thing.
Make it a temporary rule, says Jessica Donze Black, director of the Pew Health Group’s Kids’ Safe & Healthful Foods Project, but just make it by June 30 and adjust it after schools have a chance to see how things work out.
If the regulations wait around for the 2015-16 school year, “we’re moving into a whole new Congress,” she said. “There’s always a chance for things to get changed again.” And, she said, keeping the momentum of changes in school food going is key, or kids might keep choosing vending-machine chips, sodas, and cookies for lunch over new, heavily regulated school meals that contain lots of fruits and vegetables and limited amounts of calories, sodium, and fat.
If the USDA gets back to me on when regulations might be issued, I’ll let you know.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.