“What they’re proposing now is an open discussion applying nutrient standards to all foods on campus, even my competitive foods I sell a la carte, or what the school might sell at the school store, or what’s available in vending machines,” Bartow County Director of Nutrition Pam Blakeney said.
Under the proposed rules, foods like fatty chips, snack cakes, nachos and mozzarella sticks would be taken out of lunch lines and vending machines. In their place would be foods like baked chips, trail mix, diet sodas, lower-calorie sports drinks and low-fat hamburgers.
“Right now, it’s open for public comment,” Blakeney said. “There’s a 60-day public window where people can comment on these standards and how they feel about them before they firm [the proposed rules] up.”
The rules, required under a child nutrition law passed by Congress in 2010, are part of the government’s effort to combat childhood obesity. While many schools already have improved their lunch menus and vending machine choices, others still are selling high-fat, high-calorie foods.
Blakeney explained the law requires school systems to implement the rules in tiers, with some of the requirements, such as availability of fresh fruits and vegetables, already being met by Bartow schools.
Under the proposal, the United States Department of Agriculture would set fat, calorie, sugar and sodium limits on almost all foods sold in schools. Current standards already regulate the nutritional content of school breakfasts and lunches that are subsidized by the federal government, but most lunchrooms also have a la carte lines that sell other foods. Food sold through vending machines and in other ways outside the lunchroom has never before been federally regulated, but the proposed rules would regulate those foods.
Blakeney said, if the proposed rules are approved, it could end up having an adverse effect on individual schools’ revenue.
“They’re not going to eat [at school], they’re just going to bring it from home,” she said. “All it’s going to do is end up hurting the schools because they use some of those funds [from a la carte items] to do things at the schools ... and it would hurt me because some of my a la carte sales help fund the extra things I do for the kids.”
She said the current regulations require careful calculations of not only calorie content of foods, but also require her to make changes regarding components of the meal, such as grains.
“I have to count everything, and whereas before you could serve a desert like an apple pie, now if I were to serve something like that I would also have to count the grain part of it, so it wipes away some of my other grains because I have limits on how many grains I can serve a week,” Blakeney said.
Cartersville Nutrition Director Tracey Morris agreed with Blakeney that meeting the current requirements of the law did not require the system to make major changes to existing menus. However, she also agreed the proposed changes could have negative consequences, especially with high school students.
“We do have a la carte, so that is an option on campus and is really popular — we have chicken tenders, shrimp — and we have a bakery,” Morris said of Cartersville High School. “[The proposed changes] would do away with all of that.”
She added, “I think we have good, nutritious, lunches ... and at the end of this month all of our nutritional analysis will be online,” Morris said.
Morris said aspects of the current legislation have presented some problems when feeding students at CHS, prompting the system to acquire a waiver to allow for changes in portion size.
“We have a sub line, which is a whole grain sub, and when they go to Subway they get a six-inch sub ... and we were having to give them a three-inch sub and that’s just not enough food for a high school student, in my opinion,” Morris said.
She said the changing of food portions will continue under the proposed rules.
“Under the pattern they are going to implement, a 4-year-old gets the same serving as an 11th grader,” Morris said.
With the proposed rules, snacks sold in school would have to have less than 200 calories. Elementary and middle schools could sell only water, low-fat milk or 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice. High schools could sell some sports drinks, diet sodas and iced teas, but the calories would be limited. Drinks would be limited to 12-ounce portions in middle schools and to 8-ounce portions in elementary 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,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said to The Associated Press.
The standards will cover any foods regularly sold around school. They would not apply to in-school fundraisers or bake sales, though states have the power to regulate them. The new guidelines also would not apply to after-school concessions at school games or theater events, goodies brought from home for classroom celebrations, or anything students bring for their own personal consumption.
According to a press release from the USDA, “... the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report that analyzed state policies for food and beverages served outside the school lunch line, which noted that 39 states already have a state law, regulation or policy in place related to the sale or availability of snack foods and beverages in schools. In many cases, local level — district and school — policies and practices exceeded state requirements or recommendations. USDA’s proposal would establish a national baseline of these standards, with the overall goal of improving the health and nutrition of our kids.”
The new rules are the latest in a long list of changes designed to make foods served in schools more healthful and accessible. Nutritional guidelines for the subsidized lunches were revised last year and put in place last fall. The 2010 child nutrition law also provided more money for schools to serve free and reduced-cost lunches and required more meals to be served to hungry kids.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has been working for two decades to take junk foods out of schools. He calls the availability of unhealthful foods around campus a “loophole” that undermines the taxpayer money that helps pay for the healthier subsidized lunches.
“USDA’s proposed nutrition standards are a critical step in closing that loophole and in ensuring that our schools are places that nurture not just the minds of American children but their bodies as well,” Harkin said.
Last year’s rules faced criticism from some conservatives, including some Republicans in Congress, who said the government shouldn’t be telling kids what to eat. Mindful of that backlash, the USDA exempted in-school fundraisers from federal regulation and proposed different options for some parts of the rule, including the calorie limits for drinks in high schools, which would be limited to either 60 calories or 75 calories in a 12-ounce portion.
The department also has shown a willingness to work with schools to resolve complaints that some new requirements are hard to meet. Last year, for example, the government relaxed some limits on meats and grains in subsidized lunches after school nutritionists said they weren’t working.
Margo Wootan, a nutrition lobbyist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said surveys by her organization show that most parents want changes in the lunchroom.
“Parents aren’t going to have to worry that kids are using their lunch money to buy candy bars and a Gatorade instead of a healthy school lunch,” she said.
The food industry has been onboard with many of the changes, and several companies worked with Congress on the child nutrition law two years ago. Major beverage companies have already agreed to take the most caloric sodas out of schools. But those same companies, including Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, also sell many of the non-soda options, like sports drinks, and have lobbied to keep them in vending machines.
A spokeswoman for the American Beverage Association, which represents the soda companies, says they already have greatly reduced the number of calories that kids are consuming at school by pulling out the high-calorie sodas.
The proposed changes are part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative.
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— The Associated Press contributed to this article.