No more Red Hot Cheetos, Doritos or Coca Cola at school?
That’s right: last year the Obama administration made the first changes to the $11 billion government-subsidized school meal program in over 30 years, adding more fruits and green vegetables to breakfasts and lunches, as well as reducing the amount of sugar, salt and fat.
Nutritionists say that school vending machines stocked with potato chips, cookies and sugary soft drinks contribute to childhood obesity, which has more than tripled in the past 30 years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that about one in every five children is obese.
With students eating 19 to 50 percent of their daily food at school, the administration says it wants to ensure that what they eat contributes to good health, rather than contributing to their expanding waistlines.
The new rules are a component of Michelle Obama’s campaign, Let’s Move! The program aims to reduce the number of overweight children through exercise and better nutrition. The junk food industry has vehemently opposed these restrictions, since $2.3 billion worth of snack foods and beverages are sold annually in US schools – which why it’s important to get the new rules in place.
Here’s a sample of the proposal highlights, from the USDA’s press release:
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.
The public will have 60 days to comment on the rules before they are finalized for the 2014-15 school year. If you feel strongly about this issue, go to www.fns.usda.gov/cga/020113-snacks.pdf, where you can read the new guidelines in their entirety. You can address your comments to www.regulations.gov.
Previous efforts to restrict the food that schoolchildren eat outside the lunchroom have met resistance not only from the snack-food industry, but also from some schools. They worry that a ban on the selling of candy, for example, as part of fund-raisers that help pay for sports, band uniforms and field trips, could prove disastrous.
Around the country, the picture is extremely varied: about half of US states have adopted restrictions on what can be sold in vending machines, cafeterias, school stores and snack bars. Most states restrict access to competitive foods when school meals are being served. Five states restrict access to vending machines all day long.
California is one of several states that has targeted junk food in schools. A decade ago it became the first state to ban the sale of soft drinks in grade schools, and later in high schools. Since 2007, the state has also enforced nutrition standards for “competitive foods” in schools, the snacks and foods that are not included in meal plans but that students can get on school grounds.
At the California high school where I teach, there are still vending machines, but they no longer contain sodas; instead students can grab water or flavored water, or a healthy(ish) snack like a granola bar.
On the other hand, I see many students still enjoying their Cheetos or chocolate puddings, brought from home. So this federal effort won’t eliminate all junk food in schools, but it is an important step forward.
I should add that the idea of snack food is particularly American, although it may be catching on in other parts of the world. When I taught in France, for example, there were no vending machines, nor any other kind of snacks. Meals happened at specific times, and those were the only times that we ate.
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