Healthier food coming to schools
Any parent who has fixed a nutritious school lunch only to find it
untouched in a backpack the next morning will be heartened by new
federal rules that will take effect in schools nationwide in the fall of
That's when laws will require school vending machines, stores and "a la
carte" lunch menus to provide only healthful foods.
So if a child hits the cafeteria line for pizza, the cheese on that
slice will be relatively low in fat and sodium and the crust probably
will be made from whole grains. And snackers will find nuts, granola
bars and water in vending machines instead of candy bars, potato chips
and sugary sodas.
A 2001 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed that children
in the school breakfast program, many of whom eat school-provided
lunches, consume as much as half their calories each day at school. A
2009 study showed that sugar-sweetened beverages add 112 calories to the
average elementary school student's daily diet.
"Give us a couple of years and you will see the effects across the
country of not just school meals, but of all food sold in schools," said
Kevin Concannon, undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer
services for the USDA, which regulates school breakfasts and lunches. "I
know it can make a difference."
The new restrictions were mandated by the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act
of 2010, which in recent years has been responsible for increasing fruit
and vegetables and reducing fat, sodium and sugar in the breakfasts and
lunches served in school cafeterias. Now the government is moving on to
what it calls "competitive foods": a la carte items such as burgers and
pizza, vending-machine fare, and items from snack bars and school
stores. Much of that never has been regulated before.
The new rules will not affect snacks sold for fundraisers or at
after-school events such as football games or plays.
Under the new standards, released in June to take effect in September
2014, items must have fewer than 200 calories, less than 230 milligrams
of sodium, less than 35 percent of their calories from fat and less than
35 percent of their weight from sugar. A la carte entrees must meet the
same sugar and fat requirements but can have as much as 480 milligrams
of sodium and 350 calories.
Allowable beverages include water, low-fat and fat-free milk, fruit and
vegetable juices, and fruit and vegetable juices diluted with water but
containing no sweeteners. Gone will be candy bars, high-fat chips and
sugary beverages, at least during the school day. In coming years, the
federal government will further restrict sodium levels in school foods,
States, municipalities and school districts have long been free to
develop their own standards for competitive foods, and 39 states and the
District of Columbia have enacted some restrictions, according to the
School Nutrition Association, which represents 55,000 people who work
with school food.
"We're a little worried about the complexity and a little worried about
the cost" of the new rules, spokeswoman Diane Pratt-Heavner said. "But
we share the same goal" of curbing childhood obesity.
One difficult adjustment for schools has been the revenue they lost when
junk food was removed. Students buy less from vending machines now,
there are fewer machines and some schools lost bonuses that beverage
companies were paying to keep machines in schools, said Marla Caplon,
registered dietitian, licensed nutritionist and supervisor with
Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland.
At one typical high school in Montgomery County, for example,
vending-machine revenue fell from $21,055 in fiscal 2005 to $4,289 in
fiscal 2013, she said.
"Schools have lost a lot of money, but they're on board," Caplon said,
adding, "It's all about the health of the kids."
Research has begun to show the benefits of regulating competitive foods.
A 2012 study of 6,300 students in 40 states found that children in
states with strong laws governing the nutrition content of competitive
foods in schools gained less weight over three years than students in
states without those laws.
"Laws that regulate competitive food nutrition content may reduce
adolescent BMI change if they are comprehensive, contain strong
language, and are enacted across grade levels," the researchers
concluded in the journal "Pediatrics."
Kathryn Henderson, director of school and community initiatives for the
Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, said
progress has been "modest." But the policy makes sense, she said.
"We know we are very much influenced by taste and we like those fatty,
sugary foods," she said. "It's hard to have to make those choices every
day. It's better for our students that we offer choices that support
healthy eating all around."