Time to Junk the Junk

Many of you are probably aware of the changes to our national school lunch and breakfast programs under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA). And, you may have also heard the rumor about additional impending regulations in schools that would directly impact the nutrition standards for all “competitive foods” as well. (BTW: a “competitive” food is one that is sold during the school day that is not provided under the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and the School Breakfast Program (SBP).  Translation: fundraisers, school stores, snack bars, `a la carte items, and vending machines….aka snacks.) Though over a year late, a draft of those standards was finally released in February.  After a public comment period, the final version was released at the end of June. Actually, the “interim final” version! Now, another 120-day public comment period is underway, and then the “final, final” Smart Snacks in School Standards will be official.

BlogImageWhy are these standards necessary, you may ask??? The premise is that when nutrition standards for ALL school foods are consistent with the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the health and well-being of our children will increase; they will consume healthier foods (think: lots more fruits and veggies instead of Doritos and candy bars); and they will be in an environment that will teach them about nutrition and instill healthy eating habits that will hopefully continue throughout their lifetime.

Potential benefits? Here’s just a few: greater academic achievement; fewer behavioral problems and absences; greater propensity towards a healthy body weight; and fewer health problems = reduced social costs. In an ideal world, these nutritional changes will support the efforts of what is already happening at home….or, perhaps, inspire parents to start making a few healthier choices for their kids. In reality, these regulations should at least reinforce school-based nutrition education and promotion efforts as well as contribute to the “overall effectiveness of the school nutrition environment in promoting healthful food and physical activity choices.”

So, what exactly are these changes? Here’s a snapshot:

Nutrition Standards for Foods

  • Any food sold in schools must:
    • Be a “whole grain-rich” grain product; or
    • Have as the first ingredient a fruit, a vegetable, a dairy product, or a protein food; or
    • Be a combination food that contains at least ¼ cup of fruit and/or vegetable; or
    • Contain 10% of the Daily Value (DV) of one of the nutrients of public health concern in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (calcium, potassium, vitamin D, or dietary fiber).*
  • Foods must also meet several nutrient requirements:
    • Calorie limits:
      • Snack items: ≤ 200 calories
      • Entrée items: ≤ 350 calories
    • Sodium limits:
      • Snack items: ≤ 230 mg**
      • Entrée items: ≤ 480 mg
    • Fat limits:
      • Total fat: ≤35% of calories
      • Saturated fat: < 10% of calories
      • Trans fat: zero grams
    • Sugar limit:
      • ≤ 35% of weight from total sugars in foods

    *On July 1, 2016, foods may not qualify using the 10% DV criteria

    **On July 1, 2016, snack items must contain ≤ 200 mg sodium per item

    Nutrition Standards for Beverages

    • All schools may sell:
      • Plain water (with or without carbonation)
      • Unflavored low fat milk
      • Unflavored or flavored fat free milk and milk alternatives permitted by NSLP/SBP
      • 100% fruit or vegetable juice and
      • 100% fruit or vegetable juice diluted with water (with or without carbonation), and no added sweeteners.
    • Elementary schools may sell up to 8-ounce portions, while middle schools and high schools may sell up to 12-ounce portions of milk and juice. There is no portion size limit for plain water.
    • Beyond this, the standards allow additional “no calorie” and “lower calorie” beverage options for high school students.
      • No more than 20-ounce portions of:
        • Calorie-free, flavored water (with or without carbonation); and
        • Other flavored and/or carbonated beverages that are labeled to contain < 5 calories per 8 fluid ounces or ≤ 10 calories per 20 fluid ounces.
      • No more than 12-ounce portions of:
        • Beverages with ≤ 40 calories per 8 fluid ounces, or ≤ 60 calories per 12 fluid ounces.

    Other Requirements

    • Fundraisers
      • The sale of food items that meet nutrition requirements at fundraisers are not limited in any way under the standards.
      • The standards do not apply during non-school hours, on weekends and at off-campus fundraising events.
      • The standards provide a special exemption for infrequent fundraisers that do not meet the nutrition standards. State agencies may determine the frequency with which fundraising activities take place that allow the sale of food and beverage items that do not meet the nutrition standards.

    As a public health educator and coordinator for our local Healthy Schools NY program, I am aware of the awesome responsibility and effort made by the USDA to meet the challenge of the HHFKA to revamp our schools’ nutritional landscape. I realize that it took a very long time to develop these standards and everyone wants to “just get it done already.” But, I also recognize the wonderful opportunity here—one that may not come again for a long time—so, it might be prudent to rethink something in particular before giving our thumbs up. Are we, perhaps, sending a contradictory message to students about the fundraising guidelines (for those food items that do not meet the nutrition standards)? ….about which the federal government was purposefully vague, I might add. While I personally have heard many staff and students adamantly state that there will be no more proms or senior trips without their tried and true Gertrude Hawk/cookie dough/candy bar sales, I have to challenge that. Let the record state, I am not anti-prom, anti-senior trip, anti-candy bar. I believe in moderation of all foods. HOWEVER, if we are trying to changes cultural norms, aren’t we negating that by inferring that people won’t want to support our fundraiser and buy our “thing” unless it’s filled with sugar, salt, and fat??? Many districts across the nation have successfully shifted their fundraising efforts to include: healthy foods (fruits), non-food items (flower bulbs, plants), service auctions (students rake Mrs. Smith’s leaves), and even resurrected the “-a-thon” (e.g. dance-a-thons, rocking chair-a-thons, walk-a-thons, etc.). With a little energy and a paradigm shift, it can be done!

    So, what do you think? USDA is seeking comments until October 28th from students, parents, school food staff, school administrators, State agencies and other interested parties. Go to http://www.regulations.gov and search by the docket number, which is FNS-2011-0010. Your voice does count!

    Stacy McNeill
    SMcneill@ocmboces.org

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