For those of us invested in Michelle Obama’s vision of reversing childhood obesity in one generation (all of us, I hope!), another milestone was reached this past month. The USDA released its long-awaited, proposed national standards for “competitive foods,” a.k.a. snacks and beverages sold in schools outside of the school breakfast and lunch programs. That’s right. For the first time in over 30 years, vending machines, school stores, cafeteria a` la carte lines, and fundraisers are getting an extreme make-over. The draft standards aim to reduce the availability of foods and beverages of minimal nutritional value (FMNV) in schools that are high in sugar, fats and salt.
Is this really necessary, you might ask? In a word, yes. According the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), students consume 35 to 50 percent of their daily calories at school and are often exposed to FMNVs (which we already knew). Visual cues are extremely powerful, so it’s no real surprise that 40 percent of all students buy and eat one or more snacks at school and 68 percent buy and consume at least one sugar-sweetened beverage. RWJF further reports that as recently as 2010, 65 percent of elementary students across the U.S. had access to FMNV during the school day through vending machines, school stores, a` la carte lines, etc. In NYS, SED law prohibiting the sale of certain sweetened foods during the school day is either unknown or overlooked. In my travels to various school buildings, I have been quite impressed with the energy invested in providing as healthy an environment as possible for students—surpassing current and proposed standards. Conversely, I have also witnessed first-hand the purchase and devouring of candy bars in bustling halls, choosing cookies in lieu of school lunch, and two-fisted PowerAde drinkers. And, that’s not taking into account what is being ingested outside of school. It leaves little mystery as to why one in three U.S. children is overweight or obese.
You may have noticed that I have indicated that these standards are in draft form. What will the final version look like? Well, that’s up to……YOU. The American public is being urged to review the proposed changes and provide feedback to the USDA before April 9, 2013. If you cannot stand to miss one detail and feel like curling up with this 160- page bad boy (the proposed rule), knock yourself out! For the rest of us, here are some of USDA’s highlights:
- More of the foods we should encourage. Promoting availability of healthy snack foods with whole grains, low fat dairy, fruits, vegetables or protein foods as their main ingredients.
- Less of the foods we should avoid. Ensuring that snack food items are lower in fat, sugar, and sodium and provide more of the nutrients kids need.
- Targeted standards. Allowing variation by age group for factors such as beverage portion size and caffeine content.
- Flexibility for important traditions. Preserving the ability for parents to send in bagged lunches of their choosing or treats for activities such as birthday parties, holidays, and other celebrations; and allowing schools to continue traditions like occasional fundraisers and bake sales.
- Reasonable limitations on when and where the standards apply. Ensuring that standards only affect foods that are sold on school campus during the school day. Foods sold at an afterschool sporting event or other activity will not be subject to these requirements.
- Flexibility for state and local communities. Allowing significant local and regional autonomy by only establishing minimum requirements for schools. States and schools that have stronger standards than what is being proposed will be able to maintain their own policies.
- Significant transition period for schools and industry. The standards will not go into effect until at least one full school year after public comment is considered and an implementing rule is published to ensure that schools and vendors have adequate time to adapt.
Here are some other good sources to review:
- Smart Snacks in School
- All Food Sold in Schools
- Food Research and Action Center’s webinar: USDA’s Smart Snacks in School Rule: What You Need to Know
- USDA Q & A
- NEA Health Information Network and Bag the Junk
- Huffington Post blog
Bottom line: the proposed competitive foods standards aim to “clean up” the school foods environment to reflect the meal changes that are currently underway. These proposed standards are not “anti-snack;” on the contrary; they’re about reducing junk foods and instead promoting wholesome, nutrient-dense snacks and beverages that actually enhance students’ learning. Bonus: perhaps an even greater financial gain for cafeterias. As schools reduce the availability of unhealthy competitive foods, it is projected that there will be greater participation in the federally-reimbursed meal programs.
With so much on our plates, it would be easy to put this issue on the back burner or to think Who Am I To Think I Can Influence Such A Huge Change? When the proposed rules for school meals were released a couple of years ago, we learned that the USDA does indeed read ALL the comments posted; in fact, they went back to the drawing board and made significant changes before releasing its final version. So, review some of the sources I’ve provided and decide for yourself if you think the proposed standards are too weak, too stringent, or just right. And, then go here and speak your mind. Be specific. Remember that it’s a cultural shift and, no doubt, one that will not be without some growing pains….but, well worth it for the health of our kids.
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