By Kirsten Luce The New York Times
The Obama administration on Thursday released long-awaited nutrition standards for foods that schoolchildren can buy outside the cafeteria, changes that are intended to combat climbing childhood obesity rates.
The new rules come a year after the administration updated standards for the federally subsidized school lunch and breakfast programs.
The rules would apply to food sold during the school day in vending machines, snack bars and school stores. They would set calorie limits for children and limit the size of beverages they drink at school. Snack foods would be limited to 200 calories per serving, and caffeinated drinks would be allowed only in high schools.
The Agriculture Department, which is responsible for putting the new standards into effect, said the foods sold in schools would have to contain more whole grains, low-fat dairy, fruits, vegetables and leaner protein. Food high in sugar, sodium and fat would not be allowed.
The department said schools and food and beverage companies would have a year to make the necessary changes. The changes, now considered “interim final rules,” would go into effect during the 2014-15 school year. The new rules would also allow local and regional flexibility by setting minimal requirements. States and schools with higher standards than the new nutrition standards would be allowed to maintain those policies, the department said.
“Nothing is more important than the health and well-being of our children,” said Tom Vilsack, the agriculture secretary. “Parents and schools work hard to give our youngsters the opportunity to grow up healthy and strong, and providing healthy options throughout school cafeterias, vending machines and snack bars will support their great efforts.”
The standards would not affect homemade lunches or treats for activities like birthday parties, holidays and other celebrations at school. After-school activities like sporting events and bake sales would be exempt, as would candy sold during fund-raisers.
Children’s health advocates called the rules a good first step.
“I think it’s going to have a positive impact on children’s health,” said Jessica Donze Black, director of the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project at the Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington. “Stronger standards will reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as obesity.”
Howell Wechsler, president of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a partnership between the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation, also praised the new standards.
An industry spokesman was also receptive to the new rules. “We commend the U.S.D.A. for its thorough work in developing the first-ever national standards for all foods and beverages in schools which largely follow the guidelines implemented voluntarily by our industry beginning in 2006,” said Christopher Gindlesperger, a spokesman for the American Beverage Association.
“We’ve been waiting for decades for this kind of thing to happen,” said Dr. Wechsler, a former health scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “We’re going to have national standards for the first time. This is a huge step.”
Despite the enthusiasm for the new rules, health advocates and schools officials say there are still a number of issues that have to be addressed. One is the cost to schools to carry out the regulations. Another is getting children to actually eat the healthier foods, school officials said. In a number of cases when schools have moved to add healthy foods, children did not buy them.
School nutrition workers say they are reviewing the details of the interim rules to assess what impact they will have on school meal programs.
“School meal programs are already in the midst of a sea of change as cafeterias work to meet new school breakfast and lunch standards and encourage students to try the healthier choices offered,” said Sandra Ford, president of the School Nutrition Association, which represents nutrition professionals working in school cafeterias. “Complex regulations can present unique challenges and unintended consequences when put into practice.”