It’s summer, which means most of us (and our kids) are spending the days refusing to think anything even remotely school-related. But not us! We’re always interested in school food issues, and constantly dreaming up ways that we can help make it better.
Which is why we were happy to learn that last month, the USDA unveiled new nutrition guidelines for “competitive foods,” or food and beverages served in school but outside the National School Lunch Program. That includes things like a la carte cafeteria foods, vending machine offerings, and items in school stores (but not events such as birthday parties, bake sales, and after school events). (Here’s a visual explanation.)
It’s About Time
The standards, part of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, call for more whole grains, more fruits and vegetables, and foods lower in fat, sugar and sodium, but do allow for variation by age group for factors like portion size and caffeine content.
It’s hard to believe but this is the first time in over 30 years that national snack rule standards for schools have been updated. It’s about time! With many students consuming up to half of their daily calories at school, these new standards are exactly the kind of thing we need to reduce obesity rates and increase access to fresh healthy foods.
The Initial Reaction
The real question, of course, is how will these new standards be received?
Your first instinct might be to look to the soda and snack industries for the most outrage and uproar. But you’d be wrong…sort of. These industries were actually part of the effort that created the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act; after the new guidelines were announced, the American Beverage Association released the following statement: “We commend the USDA for its thorough work in developing the first-ever national standards for all foods and beverages in schools which largely follow the guidelines implemented voluntarily by our industry.”
Skeptical or not (we still are), research published in the American Journal of Public Health last year showed that beverage companies did indeed reduce the amount of full-calorie products provided to schools by 90% between 2004 and 2010.
It’s possible that some opposition to the new regulations may come from school cafeterias themselves. Sound crazy? Don’t forget that school meal programs—perpetually understaffed and under-budgeted—are already facing an array of new guidelines and standards for the lunch programs (some of which didn’t exactly go over well with students). Not to mention that the cafeteria staff are the ones who have to suffer the scrutiny and frustration of kids who just want their sweet snacks back. And for many schools, there could be financial consequences: snack and soda machines are (sadly) revenue sources for many school districts.
Making it Happen
So, what do we think? Well, we give this move by the USDA two green thumbs up. There will be kinks to work through, no doubt, but getting healthier, fresher food in front of students is critical. Given that our kids spend more time in school than any other place besides home, it’s the perfect place to model and teach healthy eating habits. Plus, nearly 250,000 people earlier this year wrote to the USDA in support of the proposed guidelines, so we know the public support is there.
Local Food Hub has been plugging away at this issue since we started, and now work with 52 public schools to incorporate local fruits and veggies into meal and snack offerings. We even partner with schools that receive SNAP funding to boost the healthy options given to students. The best part? Increasing the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables at school is a double-win: it improves nutrition for 32 million school children AND creates new market opportunities for family farmers.
We don’t know if we’ll see local apples and watermelons in vending machines anytime soon, but we’re already dreaming up some ideas…
What do you think?
Image credit: Dewayne Neeley / Creative Commons; USDA/Creative Commons