Friday, February 01, 2013

USDA Aims For Healthier School Foodscape With New 'Smart Snacks' Rule

Guidelines limit calories, fat, sugar and sodium for foods sold in a la carte cafeteria lines, vending machines, and at school stores; snack cakes, candy bars, soda and sugary beverages get kicked to the curb...
UPDATE, Feb. 8: Now open for public comment
America's children will no longer be able to buy Snickers at school or purchase Doritos to combat the mid-day doldrums if the Department of Agriculture's newly released proposed rule for "Smart Snacks In School" is fully enacted.  Issued on Friday as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act 2010 (HHFKA), the proposal is an effort to set "a national baseline" for foods sold in schools, and promote the consumption of healthier foods.  It mandates that foods available for purchase during the school day as a la carte items in cafeterias, in vending machines, and at school stores and snack bars have "minimum" nutrition standards, with a 200 calorie limit per portion size, and caps on fat, sugar, and sodium levels (details below).  

In an effort to address childhood obesity, school campuses will no longer resemble the local 7-Eleven, with most candy, sports and energy drinks, regular sodas, snack cakes, fried chips, and other fatty foods banned for sale in vending machines and at snack bars.  A la carte lunch items in cafeterias will be healthier, too.  With one in three children overweight or obese in the US, according to federal statistics, First Lady Michelle Obama championed the HHFKA as the legislative centerpiece of her Let's Move! campaign, and the long-awaited "competitive foods" rule seeks to make all foods sold on campus as healthy as the foods that are now sold in the federally reimbursed meal programs.  Updated nutrition standards for these went into effect last Fall, and include more whole grain, lean meats, low- and nonfat dairy, and daily servings of fruits and vegetables.

Studies show that about two-thirds of elementary school students and almost all high school students can buy foods and beverages outside of the meal programs in schools, and the proposal is the first time the federal government has attempted to regulate foods sold in schools that are not part of the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs.  Thus the rule mirrors the standards for the federally reimbursable program.

In a major change for schools, it essentially kicks regular soda and most sugary beverages, except for 100% fruit juice, out of Elementary and Middle schools, and eliminates caffeinated beverages and "caffeine-containing" foods from campuses through Middle School.  In High Schools, diet sodas and certain other flavored beverages will be available, and caffeine is not restricted.

“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,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a news release about the proposed rule, and added that it could help boost kids' academic performance.

“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.” 

Current national school nutrition standards for foods sold outside of meals only limit what USDA dubs "foods of minimal nutritional value," like seltzer water, hard candy, and ice pops, and not candy bars, snack cakes, and sports drinks, and that all changes with the proposal.  The final rule for the  federal school meals program caused months of controversy and criticism for USDA, and the snack rule is expected to cause an equivalent uproar.  

The proposed rule will be posted to the Federal Register next week, and then be open for a mandatory public comment period of sixty days, so parents, schools, industry groups, and all other critics can weigh in.  

Following that, the USDA will issue a final rule, but it will not go into effect until at least one year after the date of issue, USDA said, "to ensure that schools and vendors have adequate time to adapt."  The Department worked with stakeholders to address some of the issues with the federal meals program, easing and changing some restrictions.

School fundraisers and the food industry's profit margin...
The new proposal also makes exclusions for what USDA calls "important traditions."  It  allows "parents to send in bagged lunches of their choosing or treats for activities such as birthday parties, holidays, and other celebrations," and allows schools to "continue traditions like occasional fundraisers and bake sales," USDA said.  Foods sold at after school sporting events or other activities will also not be subject to these requirements; USDA in the rule defines the "school day" as being from midnight until ten minutes after the school's closing bell.

In an effort to allay the profit-margin concerns of the food industry, USDA issued a fact sheet with the proposal that declared that "Most food companies have diverse product portfolios with healthy options that do meet the proposed standards," and added that the "impact on the sales of food items would be very limited."  The sale of snack food in schools represents less than 1% of all food shipments from U.S. food manufacturers, said USDA, and "a normal school year consists of about 180 days, which means that during more than half of the year, the child is not limited in the purchase of any one company’s products." 

States and localities that already have stronger regulations in place will be allowed to retain these, USDA said.  Earlier this week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report that analyzed state policies for food and beverages served outside the school lunch line which noted that 39 states already have a state law, regulation or policy in place related to the sale or availability of snack foods and beverages in schools.  In many cases, local policies and practices exceeded state requirements or recommendations, the report said.

About 32 million children participate in the federal school meals program, which includes about 100,000 institutions.  While USDA has focused on changing school nutrition standards since the beginning of the Obama Administration, it has not made an equivalent attempt to make the largest federal nutrition program equally healthy.  The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as Food Stamps, ballooned during President Obama's first term, rising to historic levels that had between 45-47 million Americans participating in the program monthly, with about 60 % of these children, according to USDA.  Monthly federal outlays have averaged above $6 billion.

But SNAP allows beneficiaries to purchase all the things that will be prohibited in schools, including soda, cake, chips, cookies and ice cream.  The program is a profitable pot of gold for the junkfood food industry 365 days a year in a way that the school meals program will not be if the proposed new rule is issued.

General standards in the proposed rule...
"Although nutrition standards for foods sold at school alone may not be a determining factor in children's overall diets, they are critical to providing children with healthy food options throughout the entire school day," the proposed rule reads.

"Thus, these standards will help to ensure that the school nutrition environment does all that it can to promote healthy choice, and help to prevent diet-related health problems." 

The rule proposes that "to be considered allowable," snack items shall contain no more than 200 calories per portion as packaged, including any added accompaniments such as butter, cream cheese, and salad dressing, and food items must contain 10% of the Daily Value (DV) of a naturally occurring nutrient of "public health concern," such as calcium, potassium, vitamin D, and dietary fiber. 

Not more than 35% of the total calories per portion of a food as packaged shall be derived from fat. No trans fats are allowed, and USDA is proposing that less than 10% of the total calories per portion of a food be derived from saturated fats, with certain exemptions.

To qualify as an allowable competitive food, grain products must contain 50% or more whole grains by weight, or have whole grains listed as the first ingredient on packages, and have no more than 200 mg of sodium per portion as packaged.

More sodium is allowed for entrée items sold in a la carte lines, but these must contain no more than 480 mg sodium per portion as served. 

There are two options for sugar levels: In the first, in order to be considered an allowable competitive food item, no more than 35% of calories shall be derived from total sugars in foods. In the second option, allowable competitive food items shall not contain more than 35% of their weight from total sugars in foods. There are exemptions for things such as dried fruit and nuts, and yogurt: For instance, flavored and unflavored non- and low-fat yogurt with no more than 30 grams of total sugars per 8 ounce serving are exempt from the sugar standard, but are subject to the calorie, total fat, saturated fat, trans fat and sodium standards.

The rule proposes that fresh, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables with no added ingredients except water or, in the case of fruit, packed in 100% juice or extra light syrup, be exempt from all the nutrient standards included.

For beverages, Elementary School children will be able to purchase plain water in unlimited size, low fat plain milk, non fat plain or flavored milk, "nutritionally equivalent" milk alternatives as permitted by the school meal requirements, and 100%  fruit/vegetable juice, all in 8 ounce portions.  Middle School students can purchase these in 12 ounce sizes.  "Competitive foods and beverages served to Elementary and Middle School-aged children must be caffeine-free, with the exception of trace amounts of naturally occurring caffeine substances," reads the rule. 

The High School beverage standards are the same as the Middle School standards, with the addition of calorie-free, flavored and/or carbonated water (not more than 20 fluid ounces) allowed, but not in the meal service area during meal service periods; Other beverages (not more than 20 fluid ounces) that comply with the FDA requirement for bearing a “calorie free” claim of less than 5 kcals/serving allowed, but not in the meal service area during meal service periods; Other beverages in ≤ 12 oz servings allowed, but not in the meal service area during the meal service periods.

For bake sales and other food fundraisers, the proposed rule notes:  "Sale of food items that meet the proposed nutrition requirements (as well as the sale of non-food items) at fundraisers would not be limited in any way under the proposed rule. In addition, the proposed standards would not apply to food sold during non-school hours, weekends and off-campus fundraising events such as concessions during after-school sporting events. Further, the proposed standards would not apply to food or beverages sold on school grounds, during school hours at "a limited number" of school fundraisers." 

School nutrition stakeholders respond...
School nutrition stakeholders on Friday immediately issued statements in response to the rule.   

Jessica Donze Black, director of the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project from The Pew Charitable Trusts, hailed the rule.

“We applaud USDA for taking this important step to ensure that all foods and beverages sold in schools, including snacks, meet minimal nutrition standards. This is the kind of positive change we need to help reduce obesity rates among children and teens, which are now more than triple what they were four decades ago," said Donze Black.

"With many students consuming up to half of their daily calories at school, these guidelines could make a real difference in the health of our nation’s kids. Now it’s up to us—parents, teachers, pediatricians and everyone who cares about children’s health—to tell USDA that we support efforts to provide students with healthy snacks and drinks. That requires a strong final rule.”

School Nutrition Association President Sandra Ford:

"SNA supports the goal of ensuring that all foods and beverages sold in schools are healthy options for students,” said Ford.  "School nutrition professionals have been working hard to increase nutritious choices available in the cafeteria by serving more whole grains, fruits and vegetables and limiting the sodium and fat in meals - all part of ongoing efforts to implement new nutrition standards for school meals." 

"SNA looks forward to reviewing the details of these newly proposed competitive food regulations and providing feedback through the public comment process.” 

Margo Wootan, director of the nutrition policy at Center For Science in the Public Interest:

"Under USDA’s proposed nutrition standards, parents will no longer have to worry that their kids are using their lunch money to buy junk food at school," Wootan said.  "Combined with the improvements in school lunches that schools began implementing this school year, at long last, all foods and beverages sold in schools will need to meet healthy nutrition standards."

"Getting sugary drinks and junk food out of school vending machines, a la carte lines in cafeterias, and school stores is much needed given the high rates of childhood obesity and children’s poor diets."

Resources, downloads:

*The "Smart Snacks in School" Proposed Rule [PDF]

*USDA Fact Sheet: "Smart Snacks in School" [PDF]

*Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, 2010 [PDF]     

*Final Rule: Nutrition Standards in The National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs [PDF]

*Summary of Resources by Program [PDF]

*The School Day Just Got Healthier Toolkit is a USDA collection of resources including brochures, fact sheets, FAQs, fliers, school lessons, templates and much more, to help prepare for the changes to school meals that were enacted last Fall.

*The Let's Move! website is

*Photo by Samantha Appleton/White House