High school students shouldn’t have access to caffeinated or sugary drinks on campus. Snacks sold at elementary and middle schools shouldn’t have as many calories as those sold in high schools. And perhaps schools shouldn’t have vending machines or a la carte lunch lines at all.
Those thoughts are among the nearly 250,000 comments sent to the U.S. Department of Agriculture over the past few months in response to the agency’s proposal for updating the nutritional standards of school vending-machine fare, items sold on a la carte lunch lines, and other foods sold at school aside from lunches and breakfasts. Comments were due by April 9.
Acting to regulate such items for the first time in decades, the USDA has suggested limiting fat, calories, and sodium in those so-called competitive foods—items that compete with highly regulated school lunches and breakfasts. The agency also wants those snacks and entrees to be made from whole grains, fruits, vegetables, dairy products, or protein; and would mandate that they naturally contain such nutrients as calcium and fiber.
The regulations wouldn’t apply to food sold for occasional fundraising or at after-school events.
While many commenters agree that the standards for the items at issue need an overhaul, especially because new and similar rules are now in place for school lunches, some attacked the USDA proposal as being too restrictive, while others found it didn’t go far enough.
National rules for competitive foods would replace a patchwork of state policies. A recent review by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found 39 states have policies about such foods and drinks, but some govern only beverages; others apply only to elementary and middle schools; and some are merely recommendations.
Objecting to Loopholes
While nutrition advocates said they like a lot of what the USDA is proposing, they are concerned about some of the particulars.
One big sticking point for such advocates is about a loophole the USDA proposed for the nutritional requirements of items sold a la carte that have been served as part of a school meal. The agency asked for comments on one of two possible ways lunch or breakfast components could be sold a la carte.
Under one proposal, the department would allow these items to be sold daily a la carte if they meet proposed rules about sugar and fat. The second proposal would allow components to be sold any day they are a part of school meals or within four days of that.
Because many school menus are cyclical, health advocates worry schools would serve pizza and french fries every day a la carte, just as many do now. When those foods are a part of a complete meal, the entire meal must meet calorie, sodium, fat, sugar, and other requirements; individual items sold in school meals don’t have nutritional requirements.
“Permitting the sale of individual items that do not meet nutrition standards would undercut efforts to promote healthier diets,” the Princeton, N.J.-based Robert Wood Johnson Foundation told the USDA. “If parents want to allow their children to have such items, that is their choice. But schools should not be in the business of selling unhealthy foods.”
But the School Nutrition Association, an Oxon Hill, Md.-based group that represents those who run school cafeterias, disagrees. Once an item passes muster in the lunch line, the group said, there should be no limits on serving those foods on a la carte lines. That would be too complicated for cafeteria managers and a double standard, it said.
Another issue: Competitive foods would have to provide 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, created by the USDA and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services—including calcium and fiber. The USDA asked for opinions on whether foods fortified with those nutrients should be allowed.
“I’ve become concerned that even the ‘naturally occurring’ standard could easily become a hollow one in the hands of the food industry,” wrote Bettina Elias Siegel, the author of a blog called The Lunch Tray, in comments to USDA. Ms. Siegel also runs the nutrition subcommittee of the school-health-advisory council for the 204,000-student Houston school district.
“A food producer can add to its product a single natural ingredient for fortification purposes, such as nonfat dry milk powder for its calcium content,” Ms. Siegel wrote.
“But if the foods in question are highly processed, ‘better-for-you’ junk foods—‘Baked Flamin’ Hot Cheetos with Calcium’—the sale of such items still falls far afield of the agency’s laudable goal of encouraging children to enjoy more natural foods in their whole state.”
The School Nutrition Association said it supports the 10 percent proposal—and supports including foods fortified with the nutrients—but noted that the nutrient content of some foods isn’t readily available.
The agency’s proposal would keep sodas and sports drinks out of elementary and middle schools but allow them at high schools if they have no more than 60 or 75 calories in a 12-ounce serving. They could even be sold during school meals—just not in the cafeteria.
That means high school students could keep buying low- or no-calorie sodas and other drinks besides water, milk, and juice.
“We agree with the rationale to offer some flexibility in beverage choices in high schools but are concerned that sugary drinks are far less healthy than other options,” the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project wrote in its comments.
“Sugary beverages add calories with little or no nutritional benefit and replace consumption of other healthier beverage choices,” the Washington-based advocacy group said. “To ensure the healthiest options are available, we recommend limiting the number of calories per container to as low as possible.”
But the School Nutrition Association supports drinks with more calories—80 per 12-ounce serving—and selling those allowed in vending machines in the cafeteria.
“To explicitly make certain beverages available outside of the meal-service area during the meal-service period invites students to make those purchases outside of, and to the detriment of, the meal-service area,” the group said.
Another issue is the size of snacks. The Dallas-based American Heart Association wants the USDA to limit calories for snack foods, but the organization doesn’t like that the proposed limit of 200 calories would apply to all children.
“Calorie needs vary by age and activity level and change as children grow older. A one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate,” the group said. “Instead, we recommend that you establish maximum calorie limits that vary by age group as the agency did with the school meals program. Using this approach, younger children would have lower calorie limits.”
And while creating an exemption for foods sold as part of school fundraisers makes sense, the National Education Association’s Health Information Network told the USDA, the agency needs to be clear about what that means.
“Fundraisers like donut sales in the morning, pizza sold outside the cafeteria at lunch time, and candy bar sales in the afternoon not only impact student health, but also compete with federally reimbursed meals,” the NEA group wrote. “Unhealthy fundraisers weaken the ability of schools to promote and provide healthy options throughout the school day and over the whole campus.”
The USDA will issue final regulations after reviewing these comments. If those aren’t out by June 30, they won’t take effect until the 2014-15 school year, at the earliest.
Nirvi Shah, Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the April 24, 2013 edition of Education Week as Comments Weighed On Vending Machine, ‘A La Carte’ Proposals