THE U.S. Department of Agriculture rolled out its latest installment of First Lady Michelle Obama's healthier school meal laws with an interim final rule for its "Smart Snacks in School" nutrition standards.
The new standards set calorie, sodium, sugar and fat limits on snack/vending machine food items as well as a la carte items. Any foods available in schools must be a "whole-grain-rich" grain product or have as the first ingredient a fruit, vegetable, dairy product or protein food.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack explained that the rule will allow schools to move away from foods and beverages like sports drinks with high sugar amounts and replace them with lower-calorie ones. In addition, snacks must be more nutritionally dense. Vending machine snacks must have 200 calories or less, and a la carte items may not have more than 350 calories.
Elementary schools may sell up to 8 oz. beverage portions, while middle schools and high schools may sell up to 12 oz. portions of milk and juice. There is no portion size limit for plain water.
The intent of the standards is not to limit popular snack items but, instead, to provide healthier snack foods for students. For example, chips would still be allowed, but in healthier versions such as baked tortilla chips, reduced-fat corn chips and baked potato chips, USDA said.
"We want to make the healthy choice the easy choice," Vilsack said.
He added that the move helps send a more consistent nutrition message in schools as the nation deals with a growing obesity epidemic. He said it also helps reinforce the positive influence many parents are trying to convey at home, as 80% of Americans support improved nutrition standards at the school level.
At least 39 states currently have some kind of competitive foods standard already in place. In addition, thousands of schools have already taken voluntary steps to enact competitive standards that meet or exceed those USDA released. The new standards establish a consistent national baseline.
Rick Goff, executive director for the Office of Child Nutrition for the West Virginia Department of Education, noted that, in 2007, an Institute of Medicine report released recommendations that were mirrored in the interim rule. West Virginia quickly adopted those standards, and Goff said the state has already started reaping the benefits of the changes.
He added that West Virginia did extensive education for everyone from vendors to school administrators through workshops, webinars and quarterly meetings and also established a website for hosting parents' nutrition calculators.
Many schools have implemented voluntary standards with little or no loss of revenue, and some schools have reported an increase in revenue after introducing healthier foods.
Exact revenue dollar figures vary for individual states, school districts and schools, but USDA's review of the existing evidence on revenue impacts indicated that, on a national scale, any changes would most likely be very minimal, in the range of 1% of total school food revenues.
Vendors and schools will have a full year to adjust and reformulate snacks, Vilsack said.
USDA said it will do all it can to simplify any necessary transition for schools, such as by offering training and technical assistance to address challenges as they arise.
The standards do not apply to items sold during non-school hours, weekends or off-campus fund-raising events, such as concessions during sporting events and school plays.
In addition, USDA has no role in regulating foods brought from home. Therefore, any foods brought in as treats for birthdays or foods at afterschool sporting events are not subject to these standards.
USDA received nearly 250,000 stakeholder comments from parents, teachers, school foodservice professionals and the food and beverage industry and said it based the interim rule on that feedback.
USDA is seeking comments on these standards. The formal 120-day comment period is open through Oct. 28. The agency is also seeking ongoing feedback during implementation of the standards so it can make any needed tweaks to the standards based on real-world experience.