USDA Clamps Down on School Snacks

Leaves Some Loopholes

04/11/2014  |  By Sean Kelly

This Back to School season, while students search for familiar faces and faculty, one thing may prove to be entirely unfamiliar: the snacks and beverages sold in vending machines, a la carte lines and student stores.

On June 27, 2013, the USDA published its interim final rules for “competitive foods” (all snacks and beverages sold during the school day outside the National School Lunch Program) called, “Smart Snacks In School.”

The primary purpose of the Smart Snacks in School rules is to implement the competitive-foods-focused sections of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 and to ensure that competitive foods are consistent with the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which would hold snack foods to the same standards as foods sold as part of reimbursable federal meal programs.

The first national changes to USDA’s competitive food guidelines in more than 30 years, the Smart Snacks In School rules apply to all schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program and go into effect on July 1, 2014.

Smart Snacks In School have two sets of requirements for snack foods, one sets limits on ingredients and the other sets limits on nutrients.

Ingredient Standards
Any competitive food sold must be a:

  1. Fruit;
  2. Vegetable;
  3. Dairy product;
  4. Protein-rich food (meat, beans, poultry, seafood, eggs, nuts, seeds);
  5. Whole-grain rich food (first ingredient is a whole grain or product is 50% whole grains by weight); or
  6. Combo food that has at least ¼ cup fruit and/or vegetable
    *Exception until July 1, 2016: A food is allowed if it contains a minimum of 10% of the Daily Value of calcium, potassium, Vitamin D or fiber

Nutrient Standards
All competitive foods must meet each of the following nutrient limits:


  1. Max 200 calories for snacks and sides
  2. Max 350 calories for entrees (outside the school lunch program)


  1. Max 35% sugar by weight (some fruit exceptions)


  1. Max 230mg sodium for snacks (200mg after July 1, 2016)


  1. Fat: Max 35% calories from fat (as packaged or served; some exceptions for reduced fat cheese and nuts apply)
  2. Sat fat: Max 10% calories from fat (as packaged or served; some exceptions for reduced fat cheese and nuts apply)
  3. Trans fat: 0g as served

The Smart Snacks In School beverage rules vary per grade level:

Beverage Rules
All grade levels may sell:

Water or carbonated water; unflavored low-fat milk; flavored or unflavored fat-free milk and soy alternatives; and 100% fruit or vegetable juice. Size limits: 8 oz for elementary schools & 12 oz for middle and high schools.

High schools may also sell:

Lower calorie flavored and/or carbonated beverages that meet the following rules:

  • 5 calories per 8 fl oz, or 10 calories per 20 fl oz; and
  • 40 calories per 8 fl oz, or 60 calories per 12 fl oz.

Note: caffeine only permitted in high schools

What are the gray areas?

Interpretation of these rules is up to each state education agency and there are a few rules in particular that we anticipate will be interpreted differently.

  • What falls under “protein” and “vegetable” ingredients? Some state agencies may think that “potato flakes” constitute a vegetable ingredient (and thus a chip with this as the first ingredient would meet the ingredients section of the rule) and another agency may think that “soy protein isolate” would constitute a protein ingredient. This means that states, even though they’re adhering to the same national rules, could carry different products based on different interpretations. It should also be noted that these rules are not pre-emptive, meaning that states can strengthen the standards, but Smart Snacks In School serves as the foundation.
  • Enforcement. We know that state agencies will monitor compliance with the USDA’s standards through a review of local educational agency records as part of the state agency administrative review. We also know that if violations have occurred, technical assistance and corrective action plans will be required. What this exactly translates into is hard to say. We know that last year, two high schools were fined $16-20k for USDA violations in Utah. According to The Salt Lake Tribune, Davis High in Kaysville and Box Elder High in Brigham City faced $15,000-$20,000 fines for violating competitive food rules.
  • What happens after July 1st? We know that the USDA won’t issue a final rule until after implementation begins so that they can take into account feedback during implementation. Therefore, we expect some tweaks/changes in the final rule but not necessarily before July 1. What will these changes be? If you’ve watched how changes to the National School Lunch Program have panned out, you’ve seen how much of the changes were retracted after schools gave feedback that complying with the rules was not feasible. Will Smart Snacks In School have the same fate?

What could have been improved?

  • Fundraising exemptions. As the rules are written, there is little guidance on fundraising. Right now, it’s up to the discretion of each state education agency to set a “limited number” of fundraisers that will be exempt from the Smart Snacks In School rules. What exactly constitutes “limited number” has not been defined. That said, if state agencies fail to set a limit, the USDA will give them zero exemptions.
  • Duration of rules. The Smart Snacks In School rules are only in effect during the school day, which means that schools can decide to sell non-compliant snacks and beverages on campus after school.
  • Diet soda still ubiquitous. While regular soda will no longer have a place on school campuses, its diet version will. It would be great if the Smart Snacks In School beverage rules privileged items without artificial additives.

While complying with new food legislation can be tough for schools, there is research to show how important these changes can be. Researchers from Michigan State University, Oakland University, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, and the Michigan Department of Education published a study in Childhood Obesity that showed when schools offered healthful snacks (as part of their competitive foods offerings), students responded by consuming more fruits, vegetables and whole grains in their diets at home, too.

Last words
Overall, the USDA’s Smart Snacks In School rules are evidence-based and practical rules that can truly transform how our students feel and perform in school. The rules allow schools to focus on selling nutrient-rich foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, so that students get more of the nutrition they need and schools still have the ability to bring in ancillary revenue from vending.

Schools that are looking to transition now to Smart Snacks In School compliance should reach out to a healthy vending company and work with their state agency. The key is to work with students and staff to transition competitive food and beverage offerings slowly rather than to surprise them on July 1st. While any change of this magnitude is going to require a concerted effort, the potential benefits are truly incredible: a school environment where all food and beverage options work in harmony with academics to ensure students have the best possible chance for success.

Sean Kelly is the CEO & Co-Founder of HUMAN Healthy Vending (
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