School vending machines across the nation will soon be receiving
nutritional makeovers. That’s because the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which establishes nutritional standards for schools
receiving federal funds to help pay for meals, is banning the sale of
unhealthy food options that do not meet new nutritional limits.
The new guidelines,
announced last week as part of the USDA’s ‘Smart
Snacks in School’ initiative, will go into effect at the start of the
2014-2015 school year and will set restrictions for food sold in vending
machines, snack bars and a la carte lines. Popular snacking treats and
carbonated beverages high in calories, fats, sodium and sugars will be swapped
out for healthier alternatives like granola bars, low-fat chips, fat-free milk and
100 percent fruit or vegetable juice.
While the new law will not interfere with meals brought from
home (i.e. lunchboxes, bake sales, classroom treats for holiday and birthday
celebrations, etc.), it will have a direct impact on the meal choices available
to kids during the school day.
Why is the USDA now
taking action to curb unhealthy food options available during the school day?
The reality of the situation is
that kids spend a lot of their waking day in school and in after-school
activities. For some children, having snacks during the school day is critical
to maintaining energy levels to learn and stay focused in the classroom and
during extracurricular activities. Like adults, when the need or the drive
comes to refuel, the closest or most affordable/appealing beverage or food item
hits the mark.
Making the food environment
supportive of good nutrition by health-wise control of the choices makes
absolute sense. In fact, it’s something that registered dietitians, school food
service directors, school nurses and parents have already been working toward.
With regard to competitive foods, many schools have already implemented
wellness policies similar to what the USDA is now authorizing.
What are “competitive
foods” and why is the USDA specifically targeting these foods?
Essentially, competitive foods are those foods sold during a
meal time that “compete” for dollars and calories with more healthful
options. Sugary or caffeinated beverages like soda are in direct
competition with healthier alternatives such as 100 percent fruit juice, water and
milk that are already in place in regular school meals.
Setting limits for calories, fats, sugar and sodium in
competitive food products ensures that kids are selecting from food groups that
provide greater nutrient density.
Q: Are the new rules
enough? Is this a step in the right direction for obesity prevention and other
The new rules are the first step, but unfortunately fall
short. The interim rules do not apply to foods sold at after-school
fundraisers, sporting events, concession stands or meals that are served at
holiday parties and celebrations or packed in kid’s lunch boxes. As a result,
there are still plenty of opportunities for these less healthy snacks and meals
to be available for children.
Q: What does this
mean for kid’s health?
regulation can mean kids get exposed to new alternatives and healthier
choices that support mental and physical performance. Although this is a much needed step, the
choices have to go beyond what is available in school. Ultimately, if we expect
our kids to embrace the concept of eating healthy, we as educators, parents and caregivers need to set a better example.
Looking for ideas on healthy lunches, snacks and
celebratory occasions like birthday parties and athletic events? Email the
nutrition experts at SHRS at Nutrition@shrs.pitt.edu.
Learn more about the Smart Snacks
in School initiative by watching the USDA video on YouTube.
Labels: obesity, school nutrition, University of Pittsburgh School of Health and Rehabilitation Services, weight