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Snacks Sold in School Include Many Fried, Sweet, Salty Options

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In the war on unhealthy snacks sold in schools, the opposition just launched another missile.

In a new report, researchers at the Kids' Safe & Healthful Foods Project find that the majority of American children live in states where less-than-healthy snacks are readily available. And more nutritious options, such as fruits and vegetables, are harder to come by for those same kids.

The report was scheduled to be presented this week at the American Public Health Association's annual meeting in San Francisco.

Without a national policy on what can and can't be sold to students in school vending machines and in cafeteria a la carte lines, a patchwork of state policies governs these items, say researchers in the report, "Out of Balance: A Look at Snack Foods in Secondary Schools Across the States." It shows that only 4 percent of schools in Connecticut sell non-chocolate candy, while 66 percent of schools in Louisiana sell those sweet treats, for example. While soda and fruit drinks are less available than they used to be, access varies from 3 percent of schools in West Virginia that sell them to more than half of schools in Utah.

And of policies that are on the books, only 5 percent meet or exceed the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which is evidence-based federal government nutritional guidance to promote health, reduce the risk of chronic diseases, and reduce the prevalence of overweight and obese Americans.

There are some promising findings, however. For example, more than 50 percent of schools in New Hampshire allow students to buy fruit as a snack, as do nearly 45 percent in Vermont and California. And more than 35 percent of schools in Michigan and Vermont offer students the option of buying vegetables that haven't been fried.

But the report authors say that progress has stalled in improving the standards of snacks sold at school. While in Oklahoma from 2002 to 2008, the percentage of schools selling chocolate dropped to 46 percent from 81 percent, it's dropped by only two more percentage points since then. And at least four states—Hawaii, Kentucky, Nevada, and Pennsylvania—increased the percentage of schools selling candy, including chocolate, and salty snacks by five percentage points or more during the last few years. Another recent report by a different group also decried the amount of junk food items that remain available at schools, noting that the 400 billion junk food calories consumed by students each year, converted to candy bars, would equal more than 2 billion such treats—and weigh more than the aircraft carrier Midway.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture was granted the authority in 2010 to regulate snack foods sold at schools and items sold in lunch lines that compete directly with regulated school meals, but the agency has said it needs more time before it can issue even a proposed set of snack regulations that would be open for adjustment. Other research has shown that by shifting to more healthful items, schools that rely on the revenue from the sales of snacks won't be hurt.

But the longer the agency waits, the longer it takes for any rules to become effective.

The newest report suggests that the USDA set these standards, base them on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, limit the amount of calories and fat that snack foods sold in schools may contain, require a reduction in how much sodium permitted in those snacks over the course of 10 years, and also restrict the size and calories of all drinks sold outside of the school lunch and breakfast programs.

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