National Healthy School Snack Standards Take Full Effect

Nutrition Advocates Warily Eye Threats to Progress on School Meal Improvements

September 8, 2014

The 2014-2015 school year will be the very first that sees vending machines and school stores stocked nationwide with healthier snacks and drinks, with nuts, whole grain granola bars, fruit cups, and flavored seltzers replacing the sports drinks, imitation juice drinks, candy, donuts, and snack cakes allowed under the old rules, capping more than a decade's worth of advocacy on the part of parents, educators, and nutrition experts. Some 32 million American school children also are now receiving more fruits and vegetables and whole grains, and less sodium and saturated fat on their school breakfast and lunch trays.

The changes, both to the snacks and to the meals, are the result of the landmark Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 and subsequent regulations adopted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The school meal standards began to be phased in during the 2012-2013 school year.

"Skittles, sports drinks, and Swiss Rolls are out, while school lunch continues to get healthier," said Center for Science in the Public Interest nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan. "Already we're seeing childhood obesity begin to decline in some cities and states that have improved school foods. I'm confident that getting soda and other junk food out of all schools once and for all will help bring down national obesity rates too."

Ten years ago, soda and junk food was common in school vending machines. While little progress was made at the federal level during the first decade of the 2000s, advocates worked with states, such as California, New Jersey, and Kentucky, as well as some cities and school districts, to make important progress on their own. The threat of a lawsuit helped prompt the soda industry to agree in 2006 to pull full calorie soda from schools. Federal legislation gained bipartisan support in 2006, but failed to advance. By 2007, two-thirds of states still had weak or no nutrition standards for school vending machines. During the 2010 Child Nutrition Reauthorization, key beverage and food companies supported national legislation to remove soda and unhealthy snacks from schools and worked with health groups to help Congress pass the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Prospects for that legislation were further bolstered by the launch of First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign to end childhood obesity, which provided needed visibility for school nutrition.

While more than 90 percent of schools have successfully implemented the school meal nutrition standards, some food companies and their allies in Congress, chiefly House Republicans, argued in May to let school districts opt out of the meal standards. The current waiver debate is on hold until after the fall elections, and CSPI and others fear that school-food manufacturers will see the reauthorization of child nutrition legislation in 2015 as an opportunity to roll back progress.

"Parents want healthier meals, schools are providing them, and kids are eating and enjoying them," said Wootan. "But pizza producers, French fry makers, and other special interests think the school meal programs should benefit them more than our kids. Congress already showed its willingness to put corporate interests before those of our kids when they legislated that pizza counts as a vegetable in the school lunch program."

CSPI's Wootan was recently named by Fortune and Food & Wine as one of 25 of the most innovative women in food and drink.


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