The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is proposing regulations to keep the nation’s students from buying gummy bears, fruit roll-ups and cheese puffs from vending machines and at campus snack bars during the school day. But it would allow high school students to buy 12-ounce sports drinks and 20-ounce diet sodas.
The rules would apply only during the school day, allowing candy sales and other fundraisers to continue during non-school hours (half an hour after the school day ends) and at off-campus events. A limited number of such fundraisers could occur during the school day, and parents would be able to pack whatever they choose in their children’s lunch bags and bring cupcakes or other treats for special events such as birthdays.
The federal government for many years has developed regulations for food it subsidizes, such as free and reduced-price breakfasts and lunches. But this is the first time it has proposed guidelines for food it does not support with federal funds. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, aimed at reducing childhood obesity and related diseases, requires the USDA to establish nutrition standards for all foods sold in schools.
“Parents and teachers work hard to instill healthy eating habits in our kids, and these efforts should be supported when kids walk through the schoolhouse door,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in announcing a 60-day period for public comment, which is expected to begin sometime this week after the text of the proposed rule is published in the Federal Register.
The California Department of Education’s Nutrition Department is currently reviewing the 160-page document to determine whether the state needs to make any changes to its extensive regulations for “competitive foods” — those sold outside of the regular school meals. The proposed federal rules set a minimum standard, and states and local schools are allowed to have more stringent regulations.
In some areas, California has already implemented what the federal rules propose. For example, the federal proposal would eliminate foods with trans fats, which are linked to heart disease, a regulation California put in place in July 2009. In other areas, the state is stricter: California does not allow diet sodas or caffeinated drinks, which the federal proposal would allow in high schools. However, California may have to make some revisions.
The USDA based its guidelines, in part, on an April 2007 report by the Institute of Medicine, Nutrition Standards for Foods in Schools: Leading the Way toward Healthier Youth.
In an analysis of how closely states’ regulations mirrored those promoted by the institute, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that California’s rules, though better than average, were still well below the institute’s guidelines. California scored above the national median of 25.6 points, with 41.5 points out of 100. Hawaii’s policies, rated at 70.5 points, were the closest.
However, the USDA is not recommending all of the institute’s guidelines. For example, the institute’s report says sports drinks are appropriate for athletes and others engaged in rigorous physical activity, but not for all students. The USDA’s proposed regulation would make no such distinction, allowing any high school student to purchase the drink. California currently allows the sale of sports drinks in both middle and high schools.
The goal of the federal regulations is to promote more fruit, vegetables and whole-grain foods. Snacks must be fruit, vegetables, a dairy product, a protein food or a grain product that is at least 50 percent whole grain or has a whole grain as the first ingredient. It restricts fat, salt and sugar, and limits calories to 200 per item.
However, the proposed rules would make exceptions for foods that contain 10 percent of the daily value of a “naturally occurring nutrient” that is often missing from children’s diets, such as calcium, potassium and fiber. The USDA is seeking comments on this provision, in particular, saying it might be difficult for school nutritionists to tell whether these nutrients are “naturally occurring” or added in (fortified) by a food processing company. Advocates for healthy school food are concerned that this could provide a loophole for the food industry.
The “naturally occurring” requirement “could be a fantastic development, preventing the otherwise inevitable ‘Baked Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, Now With 10% of Your Day’s Fiber Requirement,’” writes Bettina Elias Siegel on her blog, “The Lunch Tray.” But the USDA’s request for comments about whether this regulation should remain as written has her worried.
The USDA is also seeking public input in the following areas:
- Allowing high school students to have caffeinated beverages. The USDA reasons that because such drinks are readily available to this age group, it wouldn’t be practical to restrict them.
- Allowing 12-ounce milk cartons for secondary students because, even though this could contribute to obesity, most children do not drink enough milk.
- Whether the federal government or the state governments should determine the number of fundraisers during the school year that can include forbidden snacks.
- Whether “accompaniments,” such as the cream cheese with the bagel or the dressing with the salad, should be counted in the total fat, sugar, salt and calorie limits for the food item.