USDA cracks down on junk food in schools

USDA cracks down on junk food in schools

The votes are in from the Smart Snacks in School proposal set by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) where the public was asked to weigh in earlier this year on healthy snack food choices in U.S. schools. The winner is: healthier food options during the school day, while junk food gets a failing grade—and the boot in school vending machines.

According to the USDA, nearly one-third of children are at risk for preventable diseases such as diabetes and heart disease as a result of being overweight or obese. If this issue is not addressed, health experts predict that this generation may be the first to live shorter lives than their parents.

“Nothing is more important than the health and well-being of our children,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a statement last week. “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,” he said.

Smart Snacks in School nutrition standards, published in the Federal Register, reflect the USDA’s considerations as well as the nearly 250,000 comments received from parents, teachers, school food service professionals, and the food and beverage industry this past spring. Beginning fall 2014, healthier options that meet the proposed requirements will be sold a la carte, in school stores, snack bars and vending machines.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 requires the USDA to set nutrition standards for all foods sold in schools. As part of this, the new Smart Snacks in School standards will help schools make healthy choices easier by offering students more foods and beverages such as whole grains, fruits and veggies, leaner protein, low-fat dairy and limiting foods high in sugar, fat and salt. These new standards carefully balance science-based nutrition guidelines with practical and flexible solutions to promote healthier eating on campus.

Snack foods that make the cut include low-fat tortilla chips, fruit cups, granola bars and 100 percent fruit juice.

In terms of beverages, the standards also allow for variation by age group for factors such as portion size and caffeine content. Water, for example, is available on an unlimited basis, while the USDA has established reasonable age-appropriate portion size standards for all other beverages to reinforce the idea of moderation and balance in student diets.

All schools are allowed to sell:

  • Plain water (carbonated or uncarbonated)
  • Unflavored low-fat milk
  • Flavored or unflavored non-fat milk (and milk alternatives)
  • 100 percent fruit and veggie juices, and full-strength juice diluted with water, carbonated or non-carbonated, with no added sweeteners

Beverage portion sizes are based on age so elementary schools may sell up to 8-oz. portions of allowable milk and juice beverages, while middle and high schools may sell up to 12-oz. portions. The maximum container size in high schools is limited to 12 ozs. for lower calorie beverages, such as diet teas, sports drinks and sodas, and 20 ozs. for calorie-free beverages.

The new nutrition standards do not restrict the sale of caffeinated beverages to high school students. However, the USDA encourages school districts to exercise caution when selecting items for sale to their students. The USDA may consider revising the standards with regard to caffeine in the future, if appropriate.

These new standards will only affect foods sold on school campuses during the school day. They do not affect parents’ ability to send kids to school with homemade school lunches or treats for events such as birthday parties, holidays and other celebrations. Foods sold at afterschool sporting events or other activities, such as bake sale fundraisers will not be subject to the standards’ requirements.

Schools and food beverage companies will be given a full school year to make the needed changes with USDA offering training and technical assistance. The USDA has set minimum requirements for schools, which allows for significant local and regional autonomy. States and schools with stronger standards than what’s being proposed will be able to maintain their current policies.

Gina Doocy, registered dietitian at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago, agrees with the new regulation. “I think that changing to lower fat snacks and eating whole grains can make a difference for cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes,” she says. “The smart snacks in school will provide nutrients with fewer calories. It also helps to eat foods that are lower in fat and sugar because sometimes people eat too large a portion of empty-calorie foods.”

She added that “it’s important that the USDA wants to preserve the ability for parents to still include traditional foods. We want to make small changes so everyone can be successful.”

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health enews Staff
health enews Staff

health enews staff is a group of experienced writers from our Advocate Aurora Health sites, which also includes freelance or intern writers.