Can you picture Junior picking carrot juice over canned pop between classes? Tom Vilsack can. The agriculture secretary announced Thursday the U.S. Department of Agriculture's new nutrition standards that will guide what kinds of treats schools can sell to students. Vending machines and snack bars will include healthy choices, according to the new guidelines.
"Nothing is more important than the health and well-being of our children," Vilsack said in a written statement announcing the finalized rule. "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."
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 required USDA to create nutrition standards for all foods sold in schools, not just the federally funded meals programs. The "Smart Snacks in School" nutrition standards will be published this week in the Federal Register, after the USDA gathered almost a quarter-million comments on the proposal.
The guidelines also rely on recommendations from the Institute of Medicine and the standards that are already in place in thousands of schools around the country, as well as healthy food and beverage offerings available in stores.
Among the highlights:
More whole grains, low-fat dairy, fruits, vegetables and leaner protein.
Foods with less fat, sugar and sodium and more nutrients.
Targeted standards. Allowing variation by age group for factors such as portion size and caffeine content.
Parents will still be able to send homemade lunches or treats for celebrations like birthday parties, and schools can still hold bake sales to raise money.
"It's great to be one step closer to getting junk food out of schools," Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told USA Today.
“It’s important to teach children healthy eating habits that will affect their health throughout their lives. It doesn’t make sense for schools to teach nutrition in the classroom, then counter it by selling sugary drinks and candy bars in vending machines in the hallway,” she told Bloomberg.
Schools will have this school year to phase in the guidelines, and help is available. They only impact the school day, so sporting and other after-school events won't have to comply. The new standards set a minimum requirement so states and local communities still have autonomy, the USDA said.
A graphic with the slogan "the school day just got healthier" helps explain some of the changes. It shows empty-calorie count of high-calorie snacks like chocolate chip sandwich cookies, fruit-flavored candies, doughnuts, chocolate bars and regular cola compared to lower-calorie, healthier choices like peanuts, light popcorn, low-fat tortilla chips, granola bars, fruit cups and no-calorie flavored water. USDA also offers a question-and-answer sheet to help people understand the changes.
While the volume of public comments indicates how controversial the decision to regulate snacks in some way has been, a health impact assessment conducted last year by The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, working with Upstream Public Health, found great benefit. Because the USDA hadn't proposed its standards at the time, it assumed items would meet the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Among other things, the report said that "even small changes to students' school-based diets — like replacing a candy bar with an apple — may reduce their risk of tooth decay, obesity and chronic illness through decreased calorie, fat and sugar intake at school." Children are also more likely to have enough to eat when they're not consuming less-filling snacks, it said.
One concern consistently expressed has been a decline in revenue, especially from vending machine sales that often backstop programs schools want to fund. The report found "districts would likely not see a decline in revenue."
The new guidelines go into effect July 2014.
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