If you've recently discovered your darling child is throwing away the apple you give her and buying a neon-green slushie and bag of cheese-flavored salt doodles from the school cafeteria's "a la carte" line, Tuesday's your last chance to sound off on snacks offered for sale at schools across the nation.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is ending a 60-day public comment period on a proposed slate of rules to govern the sale of "smart snacks in school." First unveiled on Feb. 1, the new rules "will help to ensure all foods and beverages sold in schools contribute to a healthy diet," the agency said.
The Agriculture Department was required to draft the rules -- covering items sold at school snack bars and in vending machines -- under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. In addition to boosting federal funds for breakfasts and lunches served at schools, the law gave the government new marching orders to improve the nutritional profile of all foods served at schools.
Already, 39 states have devised new standards to make school foods healthier, and school districts across the nation are engaged in voluntary efforts to improve offerings in schools.
A study published "online first" Monday in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. suggests that there's a payoff to those efforts: Compared with kids who did not eat school lunches, those who received free or reduced-price lunches in states with stricter school-meal nutrition standards were less likely to be obese, it said.
Room parents take note: The proposed rules leave families free to send along whatever foods they want when their kids go to school, and do not apply to the "time-honored tradition" of treats brought in for birthday parties, special events or after-school bake sales.
Among the many groups that have weighed in on the proposed rules, the Pew Trusts' "Kids' Safe and Healthful Food Project" has a few thoughts on ways to strengthen the regulations.
For starters, the group says that a loophole in the rules appears to allow junk-food items to be sold as "meal items" in cafeterias' "a la carte" lines. That exception in the current draft of the rules undermines their overall intent and effect and should be eliminated, said Jessica Donze Black, director of the Pew Trusts' project.
For snacks sold directly under the school's auspices, the rules set caloric limits (none over 200 calories) and limits on sugar, fat and salt content.
Significantly, they also require that these snacks be "a fruit, a vegetable, a dairy product, a protein food, a 'whole-grain-rich' grain product or a combination food that contains at least a quarter-cup of fruit or vegetable." In other words, no powdered cake donuts, no green sugar-drinks and no "fruit-flavored" things that contain no fruit or other nutritionally meaningful content.
"The intent of the proposed standards is not to limit popular school snacks but instead to provide snack foods for students that are healthier," a USDA question-and-answer statement on the rules stated. "For example, chips would still be allowed, in healthier versions such as baked tortilla chips, reduced-fat corn ships, and baked potato chips," it said.
Now's your last chance to have your say. Click the "Comment Now" prompt and fire away.