Student Well-Being

New School Snack Rules Restrict Calories, Fat

July 09, 2013 4 min read
A student reaches for a package of apple slices at a Norfolk, Va., high school. New federal snack-food rules for schools could make healthy options like these more commonplace.
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Long-awaited rules that regulate the fat, salt, sugar, and calories in snacks and vending machine foods sold in schools have been released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The rules issued June 27 will take effect during the 2014-15 school year or sooner, if districts choose. Nutrition advocates had been pressing the USDA to issue the rules in June. Any later, and they wouldn’t have taken effect until the 2015-16 school year.

The new rules are the first update to school snack regulations since the 1970s. The existing rules only limited “foods of minimal nutritional value,” which didn’t keep candy bars; snack cakes; and sugary, vitamin-fortified sports drinks from being regulated, said Margo Wootan, the director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based advocacy group.

Despite some high hopes for the rules, which come on the heels of stricter rules for school lunches, they won’t completely wipe out sodas, chips, or sweets from schools. But they will make a dent.

“Millions of students currently have widespread access to snacks and beverages that are high in sugar, fat, and salt, but limited access to nutritious options such as fruits and vegetables in school stores, snack bars, and vending machines,” said Jessica Donze Black, the director of the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project, also a Washington-based advocacy group.

“With many students consuming up to half of their daily calories at school,” she said, “these new standards represent the kind of positive change we need to help reduce obesity rates among children and teens.”

Many of the rules are adapted from those that were originally proposed by the USDA, which received about 250,000 comments.

What happens if schools don’t comply? In a phone briefing with reporters, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said he hopes schools do, though there aren’t explicit penalties if they don’t, unlike the rules for the school lunch and breakfast programs.

“It’s not about carrots and sticks,” he said, then paused. “Well I guess it is about carrots.”

Mr. Vilsack said he hopes and believes the rules will be embraced because, combined with lunch and breakfast regulations, they send a consistent message to students and address the same problems—hunger and obesity.

The changes will make “the healthy choice the easy choice for all students, no matter where they live in America,” said Mary Story, a professor of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

Closer Look

Some specifics:

• All snacks and vending machine foods must be fruits, vegetables, dairy products, protein foods, or whole-grain-rich foods, or combination food that includes at least a quarter cup of fruits or vegetables.

• For the first two years after the standards take effect, foods qualify if items contain at least 10 percent of a nutrient designated as a public-health concern for children. Those nutrients include calcium, potassium, and vitamin D. After that, items fortified with those nutrients won’t be allowed, Ms. Wootan said. “Companies won’t be able to just fortify snacks with cheap nutrients to qualify them as healthy; all school foods will have to contain ―some fruit, vegetables, whole grains, or another healthy food component,” she said.

• Any snack or side dish would be limited to 200 calories. Entrées sold individually would be limited to 350 calories.

• Snacks could have no more than 230 milligrams of sodium; that cap would drop to 200 milligrams of sodium for the 2016-17 school year. Entrée items must have no more than 480 milligrams of sodium, unless those items are already part of regular school meals.

• With some exceptions, items can get no more than 35 percent of their calories from fat and no more than 10 percent from saturated fat. Trans fats are banned.

• Total sugar must be no more than 35 percent by weight, except for dried fruits or vegetables.

• Items sold as entrées in school lunches won’t have to meet those rules—which was a concern for some school nutrition advocates.

• All schools can sell water, carbonated water, plain low-fat milk, flavored or unflavored fat-free milk and soy milk, and juices made only of fruits and vegetables.

• High schools can sell all of those drinks as well as caffeinated sodas as large as 12 ounces, but the drinks cannot have more than 60 calories. Full-calorie sports drinks will be banned. Schools can also sell flavored and carbonated water drinks that have fewer than five calories per eight-ounce serving.

• After reviewing comments, the USDA decided it won’t allow side dishes, such as french fries or chips served as part of a regular school meal, to be sold a la carte unless they meet all of the requirements.

• As originally proposed, the standards won’t apply to occasional school fundraising events or during evening and after-school activities. States get to decide exactly what that means.

The School Nutrition Association, the Oxon Hill, Md., organization that represents school cafeteria managers, said the new rules come at a tricky time.

“School meal programs are already in the midst of a sea of change as cafeterias work to meet new school breakfast and lunch standards and encourage students to try the healthier choices,” said the group’s president, Sandra Ford. Her organization plans to work with the USDA and Congress so that the snack rules “do not present undue burdens on school menu planners and students,” she said.

Nirvi Shah, Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the July 11, 2013 edition of Education Week as USDA Sets Final Rules on School Snack Foods

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