We all know that getting kids to eat healthy is never easy, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture is trying by putting new rules in place to help children eat healthier school lunches.
In 2011, first lady Michelle Obama championed the Let's Move initiative, which requires schools that accept assistance from the National School Lunch Program to give students lunches that meet nutritional standards set by the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. This year, new rules on what can be sold and advertised as snacks on school grounds went into effect July 1.
What do the new rules mean?
The regulations center on "competitive foods," which are foods sold in vending machines, a la carte school lunch lines, fundraisers and student stores. Under the USDA's new "Smart Snacks in School" standards, any snack sold on school grounds must meet all USDA requirements. This means snacks must:
- Be a "whole grain-rich" grain product; or
- Have a fruit, vegetable, dairy product or protein food as the first ingredient; or
- Contain 10 percent of the Daily Value (DV) of one of the nutrients of public health concern, such as calcium, potassium, vitamin D or dietary fiber.
Jill Castle, a pediatric dietitian/nutritionist at Bundoo, believes parents are tired of trying to teach their children healthy eating habits at home, only to have them disregarded at school. "Too many nutrient-poor snacks (meaning they have too many calories and few or little nutrients) exist in schools, and these contribute to excess caloric intake and poor nutrient intake," Castle says.
What are the benefits?
The main goal of the "Smart Snacks in School" nutrition standards is to give children healthier snack options and limit the junk food they are exposed to school.
Castle says snacks are a vital part of a child's diet, and they keep kids' appetites in check to avoid overeating at meals.
"Children require over 40 nutrients each day to sustain their growth and development. These nutrients must be obtained from a wide variety of foods," Castle says. "Healthy snacks help kids get closer to their daily nutrition goals and meet these nutrient requirements, as long as snacks are planned with health in mind."
School fundraisers might also have to change. According to the new requirements, there are limits on the number of exempt fundraisers a school can hold. If the food being sold in a fundraiser meets all the regulatory standards, they can be sold on school campuses during the school day. But if a state agency doesn't establish limits, fundraisers can't take place in schools. Fundraisers can't go on during lunch time when other, healthier food options from the meal service are being served to kids. None of these standards apply, however, if the fundraiser is happening during non-school hours, weekends or off-campus events.
The promotion of sugary drinks and junk foods during school hours will be phased out to ensure marketing campaigns around children match the USDA's health standards for school meals. Coca-Cola and Pepsi, for example, can no longer advertise their sugary drinks, but they can advertise their companies' healthier products. Any ads on cups, posters, menu boards or scoreboards at school games will eventually have to be taken down or changed.
"This is just another step in taking responsibility for what goes on inside the school walls in terms of nutrition," Castle says. "While school nutrition may not be perfect yet, the effort and intention to offer nutritious food to children is there and evolving."