High school students don't need to have access to caffeine on campus. Snacks sold at elementary and middle schools shouldn't have as many calories as those sold at high schools. And maybe schools shouldn't have vending machines or a la carte lunch lines at all.
These and other thoughts are among thousands sent to the U.S. Department of Agriculture over the last few months in response to the agency's proposal for changing the nutritional standards of vending-machine fare and other items sold at school aside from school lunches and breakfasts. (Comments were due last week.)
Acting to regulate these items for the first time in decades, the USDA wants to limit fat, calories, and sodium in vending-machine and a la carte foods; require items to be made from whole grains, fruits, vegetables, dairy products, or protein; and mandate that they naturally contain nutrients such as calcium and fiber. The regulations wouldn't apply to food sold for occasional fundraising or at after-school events—a nod to bake sales and football games.
National regulations could replace a patchwork of state regulations on the issue: A recent review of state policies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found 39 states have some kind of policy regarding competitive foods at schools, but some govern only drinks; others apply only to elementary and middle schools, and some are merely recommendations.
While advocates like a lot of what the USDA is proposing, they have concerns with some of the particulars.
One big sticking point for nutrition advocates is about a loophole for the nutritional requirements of items sold a la carte that were a part of a school meal, as long as one of two options is met. The first option allows school lunch or breakfast components that meet proposed rules about sugar and fat to be sold daily. The second says those exempt components could be sold any day they were a part of school meals or within four days of them. Because many school menus are cyclical, however, health advocates worry schools would be able to serve pizza and fries every day a la carte, just like they do now.
"Permitting the sale of individual items that do not meet nutrition standards would undercut efforts to promote healthier diets. If parents want to allow their children to have such items, that is their choice, and they may send such foods from home. But schools should not be in the business of selling unhealthy
foods," said the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in its comments to the USDA.
But the School Nutrition Association, which represents those who run school cafeterias, disagrees. Once an item passes muster in the lunch line, the group says, schools shouldn't be limited in serving these foods on a la carte lines.
Another concern: So-called competitive foods have to have 10 percent of the needed quantity of the daily value of a naturally occurring nutrient listed as one of public health concern by the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The USDA is soliciting comments about whether foods fortified with these nutrients, such as calcium or potassium, should be allowed.
"I've become concerned that even the 'naturally occurring' standard could easily become a hollow one in the hands of the food industry," writes The Lunch Tray blogger Bettina Elias Siegel, who also runs the nutrition subcommittee of the school health advisory council for Houston schools. "To cite the agency's own example, a food producer can add to its product a single natural ingredient for fortification purposes, such as nonfat dry milk powder for its calcium content, and the food will pass muster under the proposed rules. But if the foods in question are highly processed, 'better-for-you' junk foods—'Baked Flamin' Hot Cheetos with Calcium'—the sale of such items still falls far afield of the agency's laudable goal of encouraging children to enjoy more natural foods in their whole state."
Even more ideal, she said, a proposal from the folks at the Center for Food Safety: Children would be better served if there were no competitive foods sold at school at all.
The proposal would keep sodas and sports drinks out of elementary and middle schools, but they could be sold at high schools if they meet one of two proposed limits on calories—60 or 75 calories in a 12-ounce serving. They could even be sold during school meals—as long as they aren't sold inside the cafeteria. That means high school kids could keep buying low-calorie (or no-calorie) sodas and other drinks besides water, milk, and juice, as many do now.
"We agree with the rationale to offer some flexibility in beverage choices in high schools, but are concerned that sugary drinks are far less-healthy than other options," the Kids' Safe and Healthful Foods Project wrote in its comments. "Sugary beverages add calories with little or no nutritional benefit and replace consumption of other healthier beverage choices. To ensure the healthiest options are available, we recommend limiting the number of calories per container to as low as possible."
The American Heart Association wants the USDA to limit the cap on calories for snack foods, but they don't like that the proposed limit of 200 calories applies to all children.
"Calorie needs vary by age and activity level and change as children grow older. A one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate," the group said." Instead, we recommend that you establish maximum calorie limits that vary by age group as the agency did with the school meals program. Using this approach, younger children would have lower calorie limits."
While creating an exemption for foods sold as part of school fundraisers makes sense, the National Education Association's Health Information Network told USDA, but the agency needs to be very clear about what that means.
For one thing, there should never be sales of foods and drinks for fundraising activities anywhere on campus during the meal service, with meal service for the purpose of this section being defined as 30 minutes before breakfast service begins through 30 minutes after the last lunch service ends, NEA-HIN said.
"Fundraisers like donut sales in the morning, pizza sold outside the cafeteria at lunch time, and candy bars sales in the afternoon not only impact student health, but also compete with federally reimbursed meals," the group wrote. "As schools continue to provide healthier choices in the lunch and breakfast lines, unhealthy fundraisers weaken the ability of schools to promote and provide healthy options throughout the school day and over the whole campus."
A 2012 poll found that 80 percent of parents support setting national standards for snacks and a la carte foods and drinks. It remains to be seen what the USDA settles on, and when. Consider how much pressure the agency was under when it worked on school food regulations.
The USDA will issue final regulations after reviewing comments on its proposal. If those aren't out by June 30, however, they won't take effect until the 2014-15 school year at the earliest.