What the New USDA Rules for Healthier School Snacks Mean for Schools

  • Share
  • Read Later
John Scott / Getty Images

In a much anticipated ruling, the USDA announced that as soon as next year, schools across the country must provide snacks low in fat, sodium and salt in vending machines.

The federal agency’s standards were required by the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, passed in 2010, and limit vending machine snacks or “competitive snacks” to 200 calories per item, and sodas and sports drinks sold in high schools to 60 calories or less in a 12-ounce serving. Elementary and middle schools can sell water, 100% fruit or vegetable juice and low-fat or fat-free milk.

(MORE: Pre-Ordering School Lunches Steer Kids To Healthier Meal Choices)

But how easy will it be for these rules to be implemented? Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University and author of Why Calories Count, says everyone can sit back and wait for the lobbying to commence. “Watch for: ‘And how dare they take away choices from our children,’” she says. The usual suspects have already voiced their disgruntlement. For example, Republican Representative Lee Terry of Nebraska:

But soda manufacturers and the snack industry may not be as upset–or at least not as shocked–as you might think. The food industry was part of an unusual cooperative effort in creating the Act that produced the standards, after all. “We commend the USDA for its thorough work in developing the first-ever national standards for all foods and beverages in schools which largely follow the guidelines implemented voluntarily by our industry,” the American Beverage Association said in a statement.

Since 2006, some members of the beverage industry have voluntarily implemented School Beverage Guidelines developed with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation that called for the replacement of full-calorie soft drinks in school vending machines with more low-calorie options. Research published in the American Journal of Public Health last year showed that beverage companies reduced the amount of full-calorie products provided to schools by 90% between 2004 and the 2009-2010 school year.

“I worked on the bill that required these standards for over a decade. At first it was very controversial and there was pushback from the beverage and snack food industry. Over time that changed and industry came around with more public support,” says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

According to Wootan, Coke and Pepsi supported the law that required this update to the standards. “When we lobbied for the bill we lobbied with Coke and Pepsi and snack food manufactures as well, like Nestle and Mars,” says Wootan. “In terms of wanting national standards, they agreed to that.”

(MORE: Stricter School Lunch Standards Lead To Lighter Kids)

Instead, it may be schools that push back against the new regulations, which began with revisions to meals provided in school cafeterias. In January 2012 the USDA revised school meal standards to limit calories and require more fruits and vegetables and whole grains. These regulations met with mixed reviews from politicians and students, with some complaints that the new meals weren’t filling enough. (Parody videos that some students made complaining about the skimpy meals went viral.) In response to the criticisms, the USDA gave schools more flexibility in deciding portions of meat and grain servings.

Acknowledging that the new standards will present a burden for some schools, Sandra Ford, president of the School Nutrition Association (SNA) which represents 55,000 school nutrition professionals, released a statement addressing potential challenges some school systems may face. “School meal programs are already in the midst of a sea of change as cafeterias work to meet new school breakfast and lunch standards and encourage students to try the healthier choices offered,” said Ford. “Complex regulations can present unique challenges and unintended consequences when put into practice.”

Some of those consequences will be financial. “Good or bad, pop and snack machines were a revenue source for school districts. When they are gone, there is really nothing to replace them,” says Michael Smith, the superintendent at Tuscola Community Unit School District #301 in Tuscola, Illinois. “My experience is students don’t eat more school meals when snacks are taken away.  I certainly understand the argument about unhealthy snacks but I don’t believe when students are turned away from them they automatically turn towards healthy nutritional lunch items.” Smith estimates that removing the machines may end up costing his school a few thousand dollars a year.

On the other hand, some nutrition experts say that changing the snacks that are sold in schools is an important next-step, after making meals healthier, in changing the food environment in which students spend most of their days. In September 2011, the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project’s health impact assessment (HIA) showed that improving national nutrition standards for snacks and drinks can have a positive effect on students’ weight, and that it benefits school budgets by increasing revenue for school food services. That study  found that when unhealthy snacks are unavailable, students were more likely to purchase school meals.

“The school food environment has changed drastically since the standards were updated in 1979. Since then, we’ve seen many more opportunities for students to purchase foods outside of the regular meals, such as vending machines, a la carte lines, and school stores,” says  Jessica Donze Black, project director for The Pew Charitable Trusts Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project. “During the same time, we saw childhood obesity rates triple, so revising the standards to reflect the most up-to-date nutrition science became imperative.”

School officials agree, but some feel they have been unfairly shouldered with the burden of providing healthy options that is disproportionate to how much food children are actually eating in school. “Students have the opportunity to eat five to 10 meals in school for nine months a year if you include breakfast. This could be as many as 350 meals,” says Smith. “That means they eat 570 at home, or more likely in fast food restaurants or gas stations or wherever unhealthy items are sold. Addressing nutrition in school is a positive step. Addressing nutrition at home and in fast food restaurants would also be a positive step, but they aren’t as easy of a target as schools.”

Smith says he sees far too many students not eat school food and either bring something unhealthier from home or get taken out for lunch by their parents for fast food. “I’m all for students and adults eating better, but I don’t think what happens at school is the only issue,” he says.

(MORE: More Food for Hungry Students: USDA Tweaks School Meals)

In December, TIME talked to schools that had already made changes to their food offerings in anticipation of the new regulations, and had showed measurable success in getting students to eat healthier fare. A Georgia district, for example, gradually introduced more whole-grain foods and fresh produce in its cafeteria. Now, the four schools that make up the district serve 3,860 healthy meals a day and offer a different fruit and vegetable daily. Their nutritionists estimate that fruit and vegetable consumption among its students has increased by up to 40%. They also eliminated sugary beverages from their vending machines and replaced them with water and 100% juice drinks. To offset the lost profits from their vending machines, the schools held fundraisers to sell products like homecoming T-shirts.

The new regulations will go into effect for the 2014-2015 school year. Some schools in California, Kentucky and Mississippi have already begun changing their snack offerings on the state and local level, and studies of the meal regulations showed that schools that implemented the changes earlier, and introduced them gradually, enjoyed more success in gaining support from students.

The graphic below, provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project, highlights the new standards and the rationale behind them.


The Pew Charitable Trusts Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project