Why the USDA’s New Snack Rules Won’t Put an End to Junk Food in School
|July 12, 2013||Posted by Stacy under Junk food in school, School policy, Smart snacks, USDA policy|
For the record, I LOVE the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for cracking down on unhealthy foods sold at school. I LOVE organizations like the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and MomsRising.org for doing so much to support it. I LOVE that the proposed nutritional standards for foods sold during the school day will, in fact, result in healthier stuff being sold in vending machines, a la carte lines and school stores. (Read the USDA’s newly released interim final rules here or a summary here).
But I can’t help but roll my eyes at news headlines such as “Junk Food Getting Canned in Schools” (USA Today), “Smart Snacks Rule Keeps Junk Food Out of Schools” (MedCityNews.com),“New Rules Rid U.S. Schools of Junk Food” (The Japan News) and, finally, “Govt. to Schools: No Junk Food in Schools” (The Independent Florida Alligator), which went on to state that “the government is banning junk food in public schools nationwide.” (Oh, if only!).
News flash for the media: As they now stand (which I say because they aren’t finalized), the USDA Smart Snacks in School regulations won’t put an end to junk food in schools. Not. Even. Close.
Here’s the real story. According to the interim final standards (which will be effective as of the 2014–15 school year), snack foods and side dishes sold at school must not exceed 200 calories per serving. They will contain more whole grains, fruits and veggies and must meet certain standards for saturated fat, sodium and added sugar. All of this is good, of course. But it is far from perfect.
Based on these new standards, chocolate sandwich cookies, candy bars and Flamin Hot Cheetos will be out; low-fat baked chips and granola bars will be in. Full-calorie soft drinks will be out, but diet soda (in high schools only), flavored non-fat milk and yogurt with up to 30 grams of sugar per 8-ounce portion will be in. While this certainly represents an improvement, I still see the potential for plenty of empty calories and worry about the additives and preservatives that may go into these foods.
Also (and this is a HUGE sticking point for me), the USDA rules don’t apply to candy and other junk sold at after-school fundraisers, concession stands at sporting events and other after-school activities. They don’t cover classroom birthday parties, holidays and other celebrations (which can seriously add up). And as long as they are “infrequent” (with allowable frequency to be determined by state agencies), bake sales and other junk-food fundraisers held during school hours will get a hall pass as well.
As a mom of three elementary-age kids, I can attest that these foods DO, in fact, compete with the National School Lunch Program. And until we have firm and consistent policies (either at the federal, state or district level) to limit them, junk food is likely to remain a major problem in our schools.
The new USDA Smart Snacks in School rules really are a step in the right direction. This is the first major change to snack rules in decades and is the result of major efforts by CSPI and other child health advocates. I know it took a lot of work to get here, and the changes are good for our kids. But the mother in me is left wanting more. Why not get rid of packaged chips, sicky-sweet yogurt and artificially sweetened soda? Why not create national standards for school fundraisers and school parties? Is protecting the “time-honored tradition” of distributing cupcakes on a child’s birthday or selling cookie dough really more important than student health?
I’m also concerned about how the USDA’s Smart Snack rules will be implemented and monitored. As with the National School Lunch Program, state agencies will be responsible for ensuring that schools comply with the new nutritional standards. But as we’ve already found with USDA-mandated school district wellness policies, this monitoring often falls through the cracks due to lack of funding. The USDA’s suggestion that a local educational agency representative, such as a school district wellness coordinator, take the lead is great—except if one doesn’t exist (which is the case in my school district).
The USDA will be accepting comments on these interim final rules until October 28, and feedback from parents, students, school food staff, school administrators, state agencies and other interested parties is being encouraged. While it seems unlikely that we’ll see any major changes to the standards at this point, I do feel like USDA officials are listening. So consider clicking here and offering your two cents–I know I will be.
How do you feel about the USDA’s new standards for foods sold in schools during the school day? I’d love to hear your thoughts! Please scroll down to leave a comment.