Student Well-Being

USDA Wants Healthy Fare in School Vending Machines

February 19, 2013 6 min read
Bitia Francis, an 8th grader at the School for Creative and Performing Arts in Cincinnati, gets at the last of her baked Cheetos, which she bought from a vending machine. The district changed the selection of snack and a la carte items sold in its schools to conform to stricter state nutrition requirements. School officials expect most of the items will stand up to a new proposal from the U.S. Department of Agriculture regulating sales of so-called "competitive" food in schools.

New rules proposed for school vending-machine fare and a la carte items sold in the lunch line could mean the end of some of the chips, cookies, and sugary drinks now available in schools—sometimes in direct competition with school meals, which already must meet rigorous nutrition standards.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture proposal, on which the public can comment through April 9, would keep soda out of elementary and middle schools and limit calories in drinks sold in high schools—but not caffeine or carbonation. It seeks to limit fat, calories, and sodium in vending-machine and a la carte foods; require items to be made from whole grains, fruits, vegetables, dairy products, or protein; and mandate that they naturally contain nutrients such as calcium and fiber.

In a nod to bake sales and football games, the regulations wouldn’t apply to food sold for occasional fundraising or at after-school events.

The proposal, unveiled Feb. 1, has earned the endorsement of many health-advocacy organizations, which say the changes will complement wide-ranging changes made to the composition of school breakfasts and lunches that took effect this school year. Right now, students are getting competing messages about food, in some cases, when junk foods are available within walking distance of balanced school meals.

Advocates predict the changes to so-called “competitive foods"—the first new regulations of those items in decades—will face fewer battles from the food industry than the showdown over the revamping of regular school meals. For example, the American Beverage Association, a trade association based in Washington, issued a statement supporting the proposals soon after they went public.

“It’s a gigantic step forward for the nutrition environment in schools,” said Laurie Whitsel, the director of policy research for the American Heart Association, in Washington. Her organization was especially pleased with limits on sodium proposed for school snacks.

The USDA will issue final regulations after reviewing comments on its proposal. If those aren’t out by June 30, however, they wouldn’t take effect until the 2014-15 school year, at the earliest.

A recent review of state policies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in Atlanta, found 39 states have some kind of policy regarding competitive foods at schools. But the policies are a hodgepodge, with some governing only drinks, others applying only to elementary and middle schools, and some merely recommendations.

The USDA proposal, authorized by the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, will require changes everywhere, said Jessica Donze Black, the director of the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project at the Pew Charitable Trusts, in Washington.

Although Congress authorized the changes, they smack of federal overreach, said Noelle Ellerson, the assistant director of policy analysis and advocacy for the American Association of School Administrators, in Alexandria, Va.

“The big thing here is, you’re putting regulations where there’s really no resources,” she said, questioning how districts that don’t comply would be forced to do so. The USDA said it is developing additional proposals addressing that.

Proposal’s Specifics

In particular, the proposal says food sold in school stores, vending machines, and a la carte:

• Must contain at least 50 percent or more whole grains, have whole grains as the first ingredient, or be a fruit, vegetable, dairy product, or protein; or

• Must contain 10 percent of the needed quantity of the daily value of a naturally occurring nutrient listed as one of public health concern by the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The USDA is soliciting comments about whether foods fortified with these nutrients, such as calcium or potassium, should be allowed.

• Or, must be a combination of food that contains at least a quarter cup of a fruit or vegetable.

• Must get 35 percent of calories or less from fat—with some exceptions. Most items can get no more than 10 percent of calories from saturated fats. No trans fats allowed.

• Must limit sodium in snacks to 200 milligrams a serving. The cap is 480 milligrams for entrées made for meals and sold a la carte; and,

• Must limit calories for snacks and side dishes to 200 calories.

The proposed rules allow exemptions for entrées and side dishes made for the school lunch or breakfast programs but then sold a la carte, as long as one of two options is also adopted. The first option allows school lunch or breakfast components that meet proposed rules about sugar and fat to be sold daily. The second says those exempt components could be sold any day they were a part of school meals or within four days of them. Because many school menus are cyclical, however, health advocates worry schools would still be able to serve pizza and fries every day.

Another potential loophole: If a school meal one day consists of grilled chicken on a whole-wheat bun, with a side of vegetables, and cafeteria managers add potato chips without going over calorie limits for the meal, “does that mean those potato chips should be sold a la carte?” says Margo Wootan, the director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, in Washington. Selling potato chips unbalanced by other, healthier components—"that’s exactly what we’re trying to get away from,” she said.

The USDA wants feedback on whether items should get 35 percent or less of their calories from sugar or if sugar should be limited to 35 percent of an item’s weight.

For drinks, the proposal says, in elementary and middle school, they must be caffeine-free. The only options are plain water, flavored or plain low-fat or skim milk, and 100-percent-fruit and -vegetable juices. Besides water, serving sizes would be eight ounces maximum in elementary school and no more than 12 ounces in middle.

The middle school size rules also apply in high school. But outside of meals, high school students would be able to buy calorie-free flavored and unflavored carbonated water and other low-calorie caffeinated and caffeine-free drinks. The USDA wants input on whether drinks with up to 60 calories or 75 calories per 12 ounces should be allowed.

Head Start in Ohio

In Cincinnati schools, where state law regulates sales of competitive foods, Food Services Director Jessica Shelly said her 33,500-student district implemented those requirements before they had to, with success, in cafeterias and vending machines.

The district eliminated a la carte lines and encourages students to take milk, fruit, and vegetables with entrées—for less or the same as for an entrée alone, Ms. Shelly said. The switch boosted participation in the federal school lunch program and, in turn, the amount in dollars that Cincinnati collects from the USDA.

Ms. Shelly’s only quibble with the proposed standards: a ban on selling even no-calorie flavored waters during lunch. At $1, those are a big seller in high schools, a moneymaker that allows her to buy additional fruit and vegetable servings required for meals without raising meal prices, she said.

“If they can’t get it from me, they’re going to get it from somebody else,” she said, such as a place with an array of less healthful options.

Nirvi Shah, Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 2013 edition of Education Week as USDA Wants Limits on Junk Foods Sold in Vending Machines


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