New federal rules will limit the amount of fat, salt, and sugar that can be in foods sold in school vending machines and snack bars beginning in the 2014-2015 academic year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced in a press release on Thursday. That means that America’s schools will have to swap out fat-filled cookies, donuts, and salty chips for healthier alternatives like granola bars, fruit cups, and baked tortilla chips.
The initiative is part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which requires the USDA to set nationwide nutritional standards for school meals and snacks. Under the new rules, schools have several options for what they can sell students. Acceptable products include those that are primarily made up of fruits, vegetables, protein, or dairy (such as meat, poultry, eggs, and nuts) or contain at least 50 percent whole grains. Sweetening additives are mostly prohibited under the so-called “Smart Snacks in School” nutrition standards, which place a strict cap on the amount of calories that can come from a product’s saturated fat (10 percent of total calories), and sodium (no more than 230 mg per snack or 480 mg per entrée), sugars (35 percent by weight). Sodas are banned outright.
That’s a considerable change from the types of food currently available in schools. Over 80 percent of middle schools and 97 percent of high schools have vending machines, and 83 percent of those “primarily [sell] foods of minimal nutritional values,” according to a 2011 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
The new health-conscious menus will likely meet resistance from some students who miss their junk food (although there will be nothing preventing them from bringing their own from home) — and politicians willing to capitalize on that dissatisfaction. When the USDA first started rolling out changes to school meal plans in September 2012, several student-led campaigns complaining about them went viral. Rep. Steve King (R-IA) went so far as to introduce the so-called No Hungry Kids Act, which would repeal the USDA directives. Under pressure, the Obama administration softened some of its initial requirements, allowing some high-fat items like peanut butter back into cafeterias.
But those complaints overlook the reality that Americans eat too much food with too little nutritional value. The American Medical Association recently reclassified obesity as a “disease” — one that afflicts 12.5 million American children under the age of 20 and causes diseases that take up 12 percent of all public health entitlement spending.
Past evidence has shown that instituting aggressive nutritional policies corresponds with declines in childhood obesity. Early nutritional intervention is critical, since kids who form poor nutrition habits early on in life have a hard time reversing the trend once they’ve become obese.