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Obama-Era School Snack Rules Slow to Change Student Eating Habits

By Evie Blad — August 24, 2017 4 min read
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While the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010’s nutrition standards for school meals gobbled up headlines, a lesser known set of regulations created by the law is also bringing dramatic changes to the foods schools offer to students.

The “smart snacks in schools” rules set first-of-their-kind standards for the types of foods schools participating in the National School Lunch Program sell throughout the school day, even foods sold outside the lunchroom. Those rules set limits for items sold in vending machines, a la carte lines, and in-school fundraisers.

Advocates for those rules—which remain in place even as the Trump administration acted to loosen other school lunch requirements—say it may take time to determine their effect on students’ eating habits.

Researchers at Virginia Tech University surveyed the school eating habits of 6th graders at a cluster of Appalachian middle schools before and after the smart snacks rules took effect in 2014-15. They uncovered no significant changes in what students ate at school.

That’s despite the rules’ requirements that grain-based products must be at least 50 percent whole-grain. Other products must have fruit, vegetable, dairy, or protein as a first ingredient. Fewer than 35 percent of calories must be from fat, and the rules limit sodium, sugar, caffeine, and total calories. Each state may set the number of fundraisers that schools can exempt from the nutritional standards each year.

Quiz: Which School Snacks Meet New Federal Rules?

Under the federal “Smart Snack” rules that took effect in 2014, snacks sold in schools must fall within the new federal limits on calories, salt, caffeine, and fat content. Can you guess which snacks made the cut?

Changing Habits?

It will take time to change the way students think about eating, rather than just shifting the food options that are made available to them, said Georgianna Mann, an assistant professor of nutrition and hospitality management at Virginia Tech who co-authored the study.

“I think [the smart snacks rules] are a good idea in theory,” she said. “But what I think they are really lacking is the focus on changing habits rather than shaving off a few calories at school.”

Mann listed a few reasons why students may have reported few changes in their eating patterns: Schools took some time to change the foods they offered, students brought snacks from home, and school fundraisers took advantage of state waivers from the rules to sell unhealthy foods.

She also cited “lookalike snacks” produced by savvy food companies with packaging that looks exactly like their original products, though the ingredients had been modified to comply with the rules.

Students may have eaten those foods without realizing it, skewing the survey results, and missing an opportunity to be more deliberate about changing what they eat both in and out of school, Mann said.

Rules Not Universally Embraced

Thirty-eight states and many districts have regulations on school snacks and vending machines that predate the federal rule, said Stephanie Scarmo, an officer with the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project, a collaboration between The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

While it may take some time to gauge the effects of the federal smart snacks policy, previous research has demonstrated positive effects of those existing efforts, she said.

For example, a study of state rules in Massachusetts found that, as students purchased fewer snacks, participation in school lunch programs increased.

An analysis of existing research on foods available for sale at schools completed by the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project when the U.S. Department of Agriculture drafted the federal snacks rule suggested stronger school snack standards could help turn the tide on growing childhood obesity.

“The increase in child weight observed between 1988 and 2002 may have been prevented by an average reduction of 110–165 calories per day,” that analysis said.

Schools can more effectively change students’ habits by creating a local wellness plan that incorporates input from parents and community members, said Jill Turley, the national nutrition advisor with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. That input might help shape “celebration policies” that replace classroom snacks with fun activities, she said.

And some schools have incorporated healthy eating into classroom work, such as assigning graphic design students to make advertisements for healthy vending machine options. Others have held student taste tests of snacks before restocking vending machines.

The rules haven’t been welcomed by all. The School Nutrition Association, which represents school nutrition workers, pushed Congress to relax the rules on what can be served in a la carte lines, claiming they were too strict.

A few high schools made headlines when they opted out of the school lunch program rather than comply with the rules. Without favorable on-campus options, students would take advantage of open-lunch policies to eat elsewhere, they said.

And some conservative policymakers at the state and national levels criticized rules that cover fundraisers and bake sales as federal overreach, even though those rules allow for state-level waivers.

In 2015, Texas Commissioner of Agriculture Sid Miller declared “cupcake amnesty” and said that “the Texas Department of Agriculture has abolished all rules and guidelines that would stop a parent from bringing cupcakes, cookies or snacks to school.”

Some other states granted broad waivers for fundraisers, covering virtually every day of the school year with an exemption.

Advocates for the snack rules say they represent an important culture shift, even though it may take schools some time to adjust.

“The biggest thing is that it helps to send that consistent message to kids throughout the school day…” Turley said. “If [students] go to the vending machine and have all of these unhealthy options, it sends an inconsistent message.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 30, 2017 edition of Education Week as Obama-Era School Snack Rules Slow to Change Students’ Habits

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