School junk gets overhaul: USDA sends mixed messages

USDA sends mixed messages

08/21/2013  |  By SEAN KELLY

Would you believe that the USDA has not updated its school snack rules since 1979?

Under the current guidelines, foods of minimal nutrition value (or “FMNV”) cannot be sold in food service areas during meal periods but may be sold anywhere else in a school at any time. FMNV are defined in federal regulations as having less than five percent of the RDA per serving for eight key nutrients and include soft drinks, water ices, chewing gum and certain sugar-based candies like jelly beans.

This sounds pretty good, right? We don’t need jelly beans being served to kids with their lunch after all. However, the guidelines had plenty of loopholes allowing things like vitamin-fortified fruit punch to be served while seltzer water could not and chocolate-covered ice creams to make the cut over popsicles.

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This is no surprise. The USDA’s guidelines for both competitive foods — which are all foods and beverages sold to students on campus during the school day, other than those meals reimbursable under federal meal programs — and school lunches are largely influenced by Big Food lobbyists and outdated nutrition science. For example, current school lunch guidelines consider French fries and a one-quarter cup of tomato sauce as servings of vegetables.

All of this raises a very important question: what counts as a healthful snack or beverage at school, and what should?

This question is something that schools and school food service directors have grappled with for decades.

Despite the USDA’s limited and outdated standards, state and local education agencies have exercised their ability to set rules for competitive foods that are stricter than federal regulations. As of 2010, 39 states had enacted state policies for competitive foods in schools. While California, Illinois and New York City have enacted standards that meet or exceed the USDA’s limits on FMNV, many schools are still abiding by the more than 30 year old USDA guidelines.

That said, there is a glimmer of hope and it has arrived in the USDA’s recently proposed updates to its competitive food rules. These updates were published in February of this year with the 60 day comment period ending in April.

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

Under the proposal, all allowable competitive foods would have to:

  • Be a grain product that contains 50 percent or more whole grains by weight or have whole grains as the first ingredient
  • Be one of the non-grain main food groups as defined by the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA): a fruit, vegetable, dairy product, protein food (meat, beans, poultry, seafood, eggs, nuts, seeds, etc.)
  • Contain 10 percent of the Daily Value (DV) of a naturally occurring nutrient of public health concern from the DGA (e.g., calcium, potassium, vitamin D or dietary fiber); or 2) be a combination food that contains at least ¼ cup of fruit or vegetable.

Additionally, the specific nutrient standards would:

  • Set limits on calories: 200 for snacks, 350 for entrees.
  • Set limits on fats: total fat must be less than or equal to 35 percent of calories; saturated fat must be less than or equal to 10 percent of calories per portion as packaged; and trans fat must be 0 g as stated on the label. Some exemptions apply.
  • Set limits on sugars: total per serving must be less than or equal to 35 percent of calories or less than or equal to 35 percent of weight. Exemptions are provided for fruits and vegetables packed in juice or extra-light syrup, dried whole fruits, and low-fat yogurt with less than 30 g of sugar per eight ounces.
  • Set limits on sodium: snack items shall contain less than or equal to 200 milligrams of sodium. For entrée items, sodium levels must be less than or equal to 480 mg of sodium per portion for meals outside federal meal programs.

A few of the “snack rules” under most scrutiny/in need of clarification are:

  • The “Naturally Occurring” Nutrients Standard: food items must contain 10 percent of the Daily Value (DV) of a naturally occurring nutrient of public health concern: calcium, potassium, vitamin D, and dietary fiber. However, the USDA did not specify what “naturally occurring” means, so this could potentially mean that foods can be fortified with “naturally occurring” nutrients rather than having to inherently contain the nutrients. This is what originally occurred with the FMNV ruling, allowing vitamin-fortified junk-foods to be allowed. Another example of this loophole can be evidenced by a 2009 Chicago Public Schools mishap when the “Super-Donut,” a sugary breakfast treat fortified with vitamins and minerals, made its way on the scene.
  • Exempt Food-Based Fund raisers: Under the proposed rules, a “limited number” of food-based fund raisers would be exempt. The determination of what constitutes “a limited number” will be decided by the state agencies. Thus, it is unclear how many fund raisers will in actuality be exempt from any rules.

In addition, the proposed standards would not apply to food sold during non-school hours (30 minutes after school), weekends and off-campus fund raising events such as concessions during after-school sporting events.

The USDA has offered for comment two different calorie caps for beverages sold in high schools, one of which would permit the continued sale of sports drinks. This is being widely disputed.

The USDA’s proposed rules received more than 200,000 comments, which are currently being vetted. The rules should be finalized late this year, or early 2014, with schools likely needing to be in full compliance with them in the spring of 2015.

Why is this important?

About 40 percent of all students buy and eat one or more snacks at school; 68 percent buy and consume at least one sugary drink.

Policies that restrict sales of unhealthful snacks and beverages in schools can improve children’s diets and increase school revenues.

Do you want to get involved? Read the full text of the proposed standards at, become informed, work with your school to implement healthful competitive foods options and voice your support for healthful snacks and beverages in foods.

Sean Kelly is the CEO, Co-Founder and nutrition activist behind HUMAN Healthy Vending, an award-winning healthy vending machine company with hundreds of machines in schools across the country. Schools interested in having healthy vending at their location can visit:
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