The USDA (US Department of Agriculture) released its long-awaited nutritional guidelines for snacks that are sold in schools, in an effort to address the growing problem of obesity and overweight among American school-age children.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that the public comment period has started on new proposed standards to make sure that kids have access to healthy foods at school.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, said:

“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. Good nutrition lays the groundwork for good health and academic success. Providing healthy options throughout school cafeterias, vending machines, and snack bars will complement the gains made with the new, healthy standards for school breakfast and lunch so the healthy choice is the easy choice for our kids.”

In January, 2012, the USDA announced new standards for school foods. The current proposal applies to school snacks and beverages.

According to the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, the USDA should establish nutrition standards for all food products which are sold in schools throughout the country – beyond the federally-supported school meals programs.

The proposed rule, known as the “Smart Snacks in School”, which will soon be published in the Federal Register, is the initial step in the process of creating national standards. The proposed standards are the result of a combination of the IoM (Institute of Medicine) recommendations, standards that are already in existence in thousands of schools, and what is already available in the marketplace as far as healthy food and beverages are concerned.

Below are some of the highlights of the USDA’s proposals:

  • Healthy snack foods should be encouraged in schools, including whole grains, low fat dairy products, fruits, vegetables, or protein foods as their main ingredients
  • Foods we should avoid should be reduced. We have to make sure that snack food items are lower in fat, sugar and sodium. Food products should include more of the nutrients children need.
  • Beverage portion sizes and caffeine content should be gauged according to age groups
  • Important traditions need to be taken into account. Parents still need to be able to send in bagged lunches for treats, birthday parties, holidays, and other celebrations. Schools need to be allowed to carry on with traditions, such as bake sales and occasional fundraisers.
  • Limitations on foods should only affect produce that is sold on school grounds and during the school day. On extra-curricular school events, such as sports matches or other activities will not be subject to these requirements.
  • Flexibility for state and local communities. Local and regional authorities will be allowed “significant autonomy” by only establishing minimum requirements for schools. Schools and states with stronger standards than those currently being proposed will not be affected.
  • Schools and industry will be given plenty of time for the transition. A full 12 months after the new rules are published will be given to schools and industry to make sure they have adequate time to adapt.

The USDA encourages the public to review the proposal and to provide feedback and data for consideration. The proposed rule can be viewed at Members of the public will be able to provide feedback as soon as the rule is published in the Federal Register, which is expected next week. People will also be able to comment through The USDA says it will welcome public comments on the proposal for 60 days.

Last week the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) published a report which analyzed state policies for food and drinks served outside the school lunch line. It revealed that 39 states already have state legislation, regulation or policy in place regarding the availability or sale of snack foods and beverages in schools.

Many districts, schools and local authorities already have policies and practices which exceed state requirements or recommendations. The aim of the USDA proposal is to set up a national baseline of these standards, in order to improve the general health and nutrition of children at national level.

In an online communiqué, the USDA wrote: “These proposed standards are part of a bi-partisan package of changes passed by Congress in 2010 designed to ensure that students have healthy options in school. Other parts of that package include updated nutrition standards for federally-subsidized school meals that provide children more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains; additional funding for schools to support improved meals; and guidance on stronger local wellness policies.”

These policies are expected to combat obesity and child hunger. The current administration says this proposed rule is an important component of First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” initiative to combat the challenge of childhood obesity.

USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service administers America’s nutrition assistance programs including:

  • National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs
  • The Summer Food Service Program, and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
  • The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)

All these programs make up the federal nutrition safety net.

Written by Christian Nordqvist