By Jennifer VanBuren


You may have noticed the disappearance of junk food, including sugary drinks, from school vending machines. As of July 1, this will not be the exception but the rule.


Nearly 31 million school children benefit from USDA-supported meal programs. The Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act has already implemented standards of nutrition for school lunches, ensuring an increase of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and low-fat dairy while decreasing the amount of sugar, sodium and unhealthy fats. As of July 1, 2014, schools that accept assistance from the National School Lunch Program will also have to meet “Smart Snacks in Schools” nutritional standards for “competitive foods,” or they will risk fines.


New regulations

Announced in June 2013, schools have now had a year to reach compliance of the Smart Snacks in Schools standards. Many local schools are already implementing healthier snack options. The standards are based on recommendations from the Institute of Medicine and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans as well as feedback from nearly 250,000 stakeholders such as parents, school food services professionals and teachers as well as representatives from the food and beverage industry.


According to the Texas Public School Nutrition Policy, “competitive foods” are those that compete with the school’s lunch program; the foods and beverages sold in addition to, or apart from the National School Lunch Program. This includes vending machines, school stores, à la carte items in the cafeteria or fundraisers during the school day. At this time, in Texas elementary schools, no competitive foods are allowed during the school day unless sold à la carte by the school cafeteria. Teachers may serve one healthy snack per day, but not during the regular lunch period. Middle school cafeterias are allowed to make available competitive foods through school food services and outside the cafeteria, but not during the regular lunch period or one half hour before and after. In Texas high schools, competitive foods are available any time outside of the regular lunch period.


Don’t worry, the USDA is not attempting to put standards on lunches brought from home or birthday parties, nor are they monitoring after school snacks, fundraisers or concession stands at events such as athletic competitions. However, individual schools and districts may have their own policies that go beyond state and federal standards. Even now you will find school vending machines that only sell water and fruit juices with no added sugar and offer tasty snacks such as hummus and veggies, fresh fruit, natural snack bars and baked chips.


Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack states, “Nothing is more important than the health and well-being of our children. Parents and schools work hard to give our youngsters the opportunity to grow up healthy and strong, and providing healthy options throughout school cafeterias, vending machines and snack bars will support their great efforts.”


Positive progress

Good news! According to recent research1, children who attend a public school that offers healthy snacks in their vending machines and in their à la carte lines actually wind up eating healthier at home as well. Recent studies have also found that previous efforts to improve the nutrition of children in the Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act of 2010 also appear to be working. The Journal of Pediatrics reports kids ages 11 to 16 are consuming less sugar and more fruits and vegetables. They are more physically active and are eating healthy breakfasts. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has also found a declining rate of obesity among low-income children.


What does it mean?

The new standards of “Smart Snacks in School” stipulate that all snack foods sold in schools must be “whole grain rich,” meaning they contain 50 percent whole grains or have whole grains as the first ingredient. Alternately, they may have a fruit, vegetable, dairy product or protein-rich food as the first ingredient. Combination foods that contain at least one-quarter cup fruit and/or vegetable or naturally contain 10 percent of the daily value of calcium, potassium, vitamin D or dietary fiber will also be accepted.


Snacks must contain 200 calories or less and have no more than 35 percent sugar by weight, with exceptions given to dried fruits. The sodium standard will be phased in, with a limit of 230 mg sodium until July 1, 2016, when the limit is lowered to 200 mg. Foods may contain different types of fats and these are broken down by type. Total fat must be less than 35 percent of calories with the maximum saturated fat at 10 percent, and no trans fat is allowed. There are exceptions for healthy snacks that contain naturally occurring fats such as nuts and seeds, seafood and mozzarella cheese.


Beverages schools are allowed to sell are limited to carbonated or plain water, unflavored low fat milk, nonfat milk (which may be flavored), milk alternatives, full strength fruit or vegetable juices or those diluted with plain or carbonated water. There is no limit to the serving sizes of water. In elementary school, the limit of these beverages is eight fluid ounces, and in middle and high schools, the limit increases to 12 fluid ounces. Caffeinated beverages are not to be sold in elementary or middle school, but may be available to high school students. In high schools, beverages with less than 10 calories may be up to 20 oz.


First Lady Michelle Obama states, “Many parents are working hard every day to make sure they provide healthy, balanced meals and snacks to their kids. Unfortunately, we don’t always have control over the snacks our kids have access to when they’re away from home.” She continues, “That’s why, as a mom myself, I am so excited that schools will now be offering healthier choices to students and reinforcing the work we do at home to help our kids stay healthy.”

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