School cafeterias, vending machines trading sugar, fat for more healthful fare

By Lenny Bernstein

Any parent who has fixed a nutritious school lunch only to find it untouched in a backpack the next morning will be heartened by new federal rules that will take effect in schools nationwide in the fall of 2014. That’s when laws will require school vending machines, stores and “a la carte” lunch menus to provide only healthful foods. So if a child hits the cafeteria line for pizza, the cheese on that slice will be relatively low in fat and sodium and the crust probably will be made from whole grains. And snackers will find nuts, granola bars, and water in vending machines instead of candy bars, potato chips, and sugary sodas. A 2001 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) showed that children in the school breakfast program, many of whom eat school-provided lunches, consume as much as half their calories each day at school. A 2009 study showed that sugar-sweetened beverages add 112 calories to the average elementary school student’s daily diet.

“Give us a couple of years and you will see the effects across the country of not just school meals, but of all food sold in schools,” said Kevin Concannon, undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services for the USDA, which regulates school breakfasts and lunches. “I know it can make a difference.”

The new restrictions were mandated by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which in recent years has been responsible for increasing fruit and vegetables and reducing fat, sodium, and sugar in the breakfasts and lunches served in school cafeterias. Now the government is moving on to what it calls “competitive foods”: a la carte items such as burgers and pizza, vending-machine fare, and items from snack bars and school stores. Much of that never has been regulated before.

The new rules will not affect snacks sold for fundraisers or at after-school events such as football games or plays.

Under the new standards, released in June to take effect in September 2014, items must have fewer than 200 calories, less than 230 milligrams of sodium, less than 35 percent of their calories from fat and less than 35 percent of their weight from sugar. A la carte entrees must meet the same sugar and fat requirements but can have as much as 480 milligrams of sodium and 350 calories.

Allowable beverages include water, low-fat and fat-free milk, fruit and vegetable juices, and fruit and vegetable juices diluted with water but containing no sweeteners. Gone will be candy bars, high-fat chips and sugary beverages, at least during the school day. In coming years, the federal government will further restrict sodium levels in school foods, Concannon said.

States, municipalities, and school districts have long been free to develop their own standards for competitive foods, and 39 states and the District have enacted some restrictions, according to the School Nutrition Association, which represents 55,000 people who work with school food.

“We’re a little worried about the complexity and a little worried about the cost” of the new rules, spokeswoman Diane Pratt-Heavner said. “But we share the same goal” of curbing childhood obesity.

In Virginia, any food sold during breakfast and lunch times must meet certain nutritional standards. In Maryland, vending machines have timers that block access to sodas and other prohibited foods during the school day but make them available later. The District adopted rules in 2010 that are similar to the upcoming federal standards.

In Montgomery County, the plan, initiated in 2006, has earned widespread support from school officials over the past seven years, said Marla Caplon, director of the division of food and nutrition services for Montgomery County Public Schools.

“You can go to the football game and get a hot dog, but if your daughter is in a Girl Scout troop, she can’t have a bake sale” during school hours, Caplon said.

One difficult adjustment for schools has been the revenue they lost when junk food was removed. Students buy less from vending machines now, there are fewer machines and some schools lost bonuses that beverage companies were paying to keep machines in schools, Caplon said.

At one typical high school in Montgomery County, for example, vending-machine revenue fell from $21,055 in fiscal 2005 to $4,289 in fiscal 2013, she said.

“Schools have lost a lot of money, but they’re on board,” Caplon said, adding, “It’s all about the health of the kids.”

Research has begun to show the benefits of regulating competitive foods. A 2012 study of 6,300 students in 40 states found that children in states with strong laws governing the nutrition content of competitive foods in schools gained less weight over three years than students in states without those laws.

“Laws that regulate competitive food nutrition content may reduce adolescent BMI change if they are comprehensive, contain strong language, and are enacted across grade levels,” the researchers concluded in the journal Pediatrics.

Kathryn Henderson, director of school and community initiatives for the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University, said progress has been “modest.” But the policy makes sense, she said.

“We know we are very much influenced by taste and we like those fatty, sugary foods,” she said. “It’s hard to have to make those choices every day. It’s better for our students that we offer choices that support healthy eating all around.”

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