USDA Cracks Down on ‘Competitive’ Food, Drinks in Schools

New USDA regulations may make it harder to buy a Coke at a school vending machine or have a piece of cake with school lunch. Announced on Friday, the 160-page regulations are the next step of the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act and have been made public for a 60-day comment period.

The new regulations will not apply to food provided as part of federal breakfast or lunch programs, but instead regulate "competitive foods" that are sold in vending machines, snack bars, or other venues at school. They are called "competitive" because for students, the presence of vending machine food allows an alternative to the healthy food that the cafeteria is required to serve, so the snacks compete with healthy food. The purpose of the new rules will be to level the playing field, restricting the sugar and fat content of snacks so when students choose them instead of a meal, the snacks will not greatly contribute to the national problem of obese children.

Elise Vliebeck explains, in The Hill, how the regulations may change food that schools may sell:

The regulations state that all competitive foods must be either a fruit, vegetable, dairy product, protein food, "whole-grain rich" product, or a combination food that contains at least 1/4 cup of fruits or vegetables; or they must contain 10 percent of the daily value of a major nutrient.

All snacks must also meet a range of calorie and nutrition requirements, such as limits on sodium, total sugar and calories from fat, with few exceptions.

Drinks that can be sold in vending machines are also limited under the new rules; they can include only water, low-fat milk, flavored fat-free milk, and 100% fruit juice. This excludes juice drinks sweetened with corn syrup, and it appears to exclude carbonated drinks. The regulations also require that unlimited water must be served at school meals. Caffeine is not permitted to be served to students younger than high school.

The rules permit somewhat more latitude for high school students. Flavored fizzy water is specifically permitted, and other drinks, including carbonated, can be offered at non-meal times if they are portion-limited (12 oz.) and come under a calorie limit. This limit is part of the USDA's request for comments, since it offers two alternatives, a top limit of 40 or 50 calories per 8 oz.

Perhaps the most controversial portion of the new regulations will be its declaration that USDA has the power to limit school-sponsored fundraising events that sell food. USDA is asking for public comments on how it may exercise this power. In one alternative, they would set a limit on how many fundraising events could sell foods that are not in compliance with the regulations. In another, they would set limits on how frequently such events could be held.

The new regulations are careful to cite local standards and permit schools to determine what they will sell, as long as the items meet minimum federal nutrition standards. And although the regulations will cause headaches for anyone in school hours, employed by the school, or sponsored by the school, they are not supposed to apply to individuals:

Officials noted that the proposed rules will not apply to birthday treats, snacks provided during after-school activities, or student-brought foods.

As the regulations were released, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack stated the agency's goal of improving nutrition and education at the same time. Noting that parents work hard to teach good eating habits and choices, he hoped that the new regulations would improve the schools' ability to continue to teach and support these things during school hours.

02 4, 2013
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