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A Proposal to Improve the Federal School Meals Program

By Debbi Beauvais, RDN, SNS

It’s been 18 months since the new federal standards for healthier school meals went into effect nationwide to ensure kids receive larger portions of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. To improve on these standards, the USDA released a proposed rule in February to develop a national policy on the sale of competitive foods in schools called the “Smart Snacks in School” proposal.

The proposal seeks to make all competitive foods and beverages, which are sold in schools but are not part of the federal school meals program, more nutritious. Competitive foods include baked goods, bagged snacks such as potato chips, ice cream, sports drinks, and soda that often are sold in vending machines, school stores, snack bars, and on à la carte menus. The proposed rule is the first step in the process to create national standards for these foods and will ensure that they contain no more than 200 kcal and 200 mg of sodium per serving, derive no more than 35% of total calories from sugar or fat, and include no trans fat.

The new proposed standards draw on recommendations from the Institute of Medicine, existing voluntary standards already implemented by thousands of schools around the country, and healthful food and beverage offerings currently available in the marketplace.

“Parents and teachers work hard to instill healthful eating habits in our kids, and these efforts should be supported when kids walk through the schoolhouse door,” says US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. “Good nutrition lays the groundwork for good health and academic success. Providing healthful options throughout school cafeterias, vending machines, and snack bars will complement the gains made with the new, healthful standards for school breakfast and lunch so the healthful choice is the easy choice for our kids.”

Since children consume a significant portion of their daily calories at school, improving the nutritional profile of foods sold in school is critical to ensure that more children adopt the kind of healthful eating habits and lifestyles that will enable them to live healthier, more productive lives.

The USDA’s proposal seeks to accomplish the following:

Promote the availability of healthful snack foods made with whole grains, low-fat dairy, fruits, vegetables, or protein as their main ingredients.

Ensure that snack foods are lower in fat, sugar, and sodium, and provide more of the nutrients kids need.

Establish correct portion sizes and caffeine content of beverages based on age group.

Maintain flexibility to honor important traditions. Schools should allow parents to send bagged lunches of their choosing and treats for activities such as birthday parties, holidays, and other celebrations, and schools should be allowed to plan occasional fund-raisers and bake sales.

Place reasonable limitations on when and where the standards apply. This ensures that standards affect only foods sold on school campuses during the school day. Foods sold at after-school sporting events or other activities won’t be subject to the requirements. 

Allow flexibility for state and local communities. This will allow local and regional autonomy to establish only minimum requirements for schools. States and schools that have stronger standards than what’s being proposed can maintain their own policies.

Enable a significant transition period for schools and industry. The standards won’t 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.

The USDA received thousands of comments on this proposed rule during its 60-day comment period. It’s expected that the interim rule will be released sometime in late spring or early summer of 2013. At that time, schools and manufacturers alike will begin implementing the new standards for foods sold apart from school meals. Schools are required to implement the new standards at the start of the next full school year after the proposed rule is released, which will be no sooner than the fall of 2014.

These à la carte food standards are part of the changes Congress passed in 2010, designed to ensure that students have healthful snack options in school. Other parts of this legislation include updated nutrition standards for federally subsidized school meals, which were rolled out in July 2012. These standards provide children with more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains at mealtime; include additional funding for schools to support improved meals; and offer guidance on stronger local wellness policies.

Schools have worked diligently over the last school year to change children’s tastes and encourage them to try a variety of new fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. In my own school nutrition programs, we introduced new side dishes containing beans, legumes, and dark green leafy vegetables. Beans and greens, sweet potato apple bake, black bean corn salsa, and crazy mixed-up bean salad are a few options our kids enjoy.

School nutrition directors across the country are realizing they oversee not only a meal program but also a food classroom, as many students are learning about and tasting foods for the first time. As we work through the many challenges associated with these changes to our meal programs, we all can agree on one thing: The intent of these policies is to help combat child hunger and obesity, and improve the health and nutrition of the nation’s children.

— Debbi Beauvais, RDN, SNS, is the school nutrition director at Gates Chili Central and East Rochester Union Free school districts in Rochester, New York, and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.