The U.S. Department of Agriculture finalized regulations today to limit the amount of fat, calories, sugar, and sodium in foods and drinks sold at schools during the school day. That includes snacks sold in vending machines and foods available à la carte in cafeterias, which have never been regulated before. Baked potato chips, granola bars, 100 percent-juice drinks, and diet drinks are in, but cookies, ice cream, and high-calorie beverages are out.
Proposed in February and made final this week, the guidelines fall under a child nutrition law passed by Congress in 2010, and are part of the government’s campaign against childhood obesity. Back in 2004, a Republican-controlled Congress re-authorized the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act, which allowed regional school districts decide how they would fight obesity. Now, the 2010 law requires all regions to follow the nutrition requirements with one exception: student bake sales, but states can and have tried to regulate those.
Last year, Massachusetts tried to ban bake sales, but widespread opposition forced the state to abandon the plan. Homemade cookies, even organic ones, don’t come in conventional packages labeled with calorie- and fat-content information, so some state nutritional requirements could eliminate homemade goods from schools. But parents and school districts pointed out that such a ban would make raising money for extracurricular activities more difficult.
While some schools have improved their lunch menus and vending machine choices, others still sell high-calorie foods—mozzarella sticks, French fries, and nachos—as à la carte items. Under these new federal regulations, schools would need to move toward offering foods like whole-wheat pizzas, low-fat hamburgers, fruit cups, and yogurt. In fact, the regulations will force schools to offer foods with more whole grains, low-fat dairy items, fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins.
Margo Wootan, a nutrition lobbyist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said it’s not enough to get rid of bad foods. “It also has to provide positive nutritional benefits,” she said. “There has to be some food in the food.”
One of the biggest changes in the regulations is a ban on high-calorie sports drinks, which many beverage companies added to school vending machines to replace high-calorie sodas. Now, high schools can only sell drinks containing fewer than 60 calories in a 12-ounce serving, while elementary and middle schools can sell only water, fruit or vegetable juice, and low-fat milk, including nonfat flavored milks.
The new guidelines do not apply to after-school concessions at school athletic or theater events, goodies brought from home for classroom celebrations, or anything students bring for their own personal consumption.
No one knows how these nutritional guidelines will affect children, but two videos produced by students reveal some possible unintended consequences—unappetizing food that children pass up and high school athletes who can’t get enough calories from lunches during training.