School vending machines, a la carte lunch lines, and other snacks sold to students at school are facing their first new regulations in more than 30 years—standards heralded by nutrition experts but ones that may be subjected to a battle from the food industry.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture unveiled the long-awaited proposed rules today. Among other things, the rules would give a boost to healthy snack foods made with whole grains, low-fat dairy, fruits, vegetables, and sources of protein as their main ingredients, and require that these items be lower in fat, sugar, and sodium than many of the chips, cookies, french fries, pizza, and sodas now available in schools.
“Parents and teachers work hard to instill healthy eating habits in our kids, and these efforts should be supported when kids walk through the schoolhouse door,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said in a statement. “Good nutrition lays the groundwork for good health and academic success. Providing healthy options throughout school cafeterias, vending machines, and snack bars will complement the gains made with the new, healthy standards for school breakfast and lunch so the healthy choice is the easy choice for our kids.”
Specifically, the rules would require that any food sold in schools must:
- Be either a fruit, a vegetable, a dairy product, a protein food, a “whole-grain rich” grain product, or a combination food that contains at least one quarter cup of fruit or vegetable; or
- Contain 10 percent of the daily value of a nutrient cited as a public health concern in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which include calcium, potassium, vitamin D, or fiber. (The question here: Will foods fortified with these nutrients, say chips or cookies, make the USDA’s cut? While at one point the agency says in its proposal that these nutrients should be “naturally occurring” it also solicits comments on whether foods fortified with these items should count.)
- Get 35 percent or less of their calories from fat and no more than 10 percent of calories from saturated fat. These items must have no trans fat, with exemptions for reduced-fat cheeses, nuts, and nut butters without other ingredients and seafood with no added fat.
- Contain 200 milligrams or less sodium. For entrée items, sodium levels must be 480 milligrams or less per portion.
- Have 35 percent or less of their calories derived from sugar or have 35 percent or less of their weight coming from sugar, with exemptions for fruits and vegetables packed in juice or extra-light syrup and for some types of yogurt.
- For snack items, contain no more than 200 calories per portion.
Regarding drinks sold in schools,
- Regular soda would not be allowed, but diet sodas would be allowed in high schools in 20-ounce containers, as would 12-ounce versions of zero-calorie sports drinks or fitness waters and 12-ounce portions of sports drinks and other drinks that have no more than 40 calories per 8 ounces.
- Schools couldn’t sell these drinks where school breakfasts or lunches are sold at the same time those meals are served.
- All schools would be able to sell plain water, plain low-fat milk, plain or flavored fat-free milk, and milk alternatives now allowed by the national school lunch program and 100 percent fruit and vegetable juice, with portion sizes varying by children’s age.
The changes are parallel to shifts in USDA rules about school meals that took effect this school year.
“When we think about the fact that kids get up to half of the calories they eat in a day at school, the (school) meal shouldn’t have to compete with less healthy options,” said Jessica Donze Black, the director of the Pew Health Group’s Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project.
The proposal provides some potential caveats to its ambitious attempt to overhaul school snacks and foods that compete with traditional school lunches, however.
For example, one alternative says items sold on a la carte lines would simply have to meet the fat and sugar standards required for items sold in the regular lunch line. Another option would allow items to be sold if they are already part of the school meal. As blogger Bettina Elias Siegel explains, “a kid could buy extra slices of pizza or a basket of fries only so long as those items are also on that day’s school meal menu.”
The proposed rules would affect all food sold at school other than infrequent fundraisers—such as a one-time bake sale—and would not limit parents’ ability to send in bagged lunches of their choice or treats for birthdays or other celebrations. Schools sold at afterschool sporting events or other activities also would be unaffected.
One study has found that schools’ revenue wouldn’t be affected if more healthful snacks were sold in vending machines, school stores, and on a la carte lunch lines.
“Limiting the sale of junk food in schools isn’t a solution in itself,” said Mission: Readiness, a group of retired military generals that has pressed the USDA for some of the changes to school foods made in recent years. “But the sales of junk food and sugary drinks in school vending machines and cafeterias works against national efforts to ensure students eat more healthfully and against efforts by parents to help children develop healthier lifelong eating habits.”
The nonpartisan group notes that national surveys conducted for the military and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show one in four young adults would be ineligible to serve in the military because of excess body fat.
School snack rules were expected about a year ago. The USDA was authorized to overhaul regulations for sodas and snacks by the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act but repeatedly said it needed more time to formulate a proposal. As a result, the proposed rules may not be implemented until the 2014-15 school year or later. School nutrition experts have said changes to traditional school meals cannot be as effective as they would be without modifications to other foods sold at schools.
The public will have 60 days to comment on the regulations once they are posted at regulations.gov, which is expected next week, the agency said. (In the meantime you can read them at the end of this blog post!) The USDA will weigh those comments before issuing final regulations.
In a statement, the National PTA said that it welcomes the new rule, but the organization “plans to provide constructive feedback in response to the proposal’s details and encourages its members to do the same.”
As I look through the rules more carefully today, I’ll report back on what I find. Watch this space for updates.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.