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Nutrition, finances win with healthful school snacks, report says

June 26, 2012|By Mary MacVean
  • USDA is setting policies for food sold at schools outside the cafeterias.
USDA is setting policies for food sold at schools outside the cafeterias. (Bob Chamberlain / Los Angeles…)

The federal government is slated to come up with rules governing the food sold at school that’s not part of the regular meals.

Those foods are often called competitive foods, because what’s sold in the student store or in vending machines or other spots at schools often competes with the meal programs.

“Ensuring that schools sell nutritious foods is critical to improving children’s diets,” a report issued Tuesday says. “This is one of the goals of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.”

That law, passed in 2010, directs the federal government to update standards for all foods sold at school by bringing them into alignment with dietary guidelines.

An assessment of what those new rules might do for kids’ health and the schools’ bottom line was released Tuesday by two projects from the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The projects argue for standards that require competitive foods and beverages to be healthy. Many districts have implemented standards already: In Los Angeles, for example, no soda can be sold and there are fat, salt and sugar standards for snack foods sold at schools.

The federal standards to come from the Department of Agriculture would be the minimum required, and some districts already have high standards, says Jessica Donze Black, director of one of the projects, the Kids’ Safe & Healthful Foods Project.

There’s frequent complaining that kids won’t eat healthful food at school, but Black says that’s not so. Given the choice between carrots and chips, they might choose the chips, but if the choice is carrots or celery, kids will eat.

“If they have fewer unhealthy options, they are far more likely to choose heathier school lunch options,” she said in a telephone interview Monday. “

She also says that school districts can help get kids interested in healthful food with taste tests, free samples and other marketing tricks.

Students of a USDA program that provides a daily fruit or vegetable snack in some schools show that the kids not only eat more produce but they eat it outside of school as well, Black says.

Her project and the Health Impact project assessed more than 300 studies and economic analyses to come up with their report. Noting that many children eat half their daily calories at school, the report notes that USDA’s guidelines could have a big impact on childhood obesity.

School snacks are “low-hanging fruit,” Black says.

The last time the USDA set standards for competitive foods in schools was 1979 – a far different environment, before the childhood obesity epidemic, before vending machines were common at schools.

Today, Black says, kids have access to food all day long, and fund-raising for programs often takes the form of selling unhealthful snacks.

Once the USDA issues its policy, it could be a couple of years before it’s implement, she says. “We think it’s imperative that they move fast. … Our study shows we can’t afford to wait.” 

When kids buy snacks instead of school meals, the school may lose money, the report says. When snack foods are more nutritious, more kids tend to buy meals because there’s less competition for their money, the report says.

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