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Are Schools Ready for New Competitive Foods Standards?

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Schools have worked to change what's served on lunch trays around the country. Now are they ready to serve healthy foods in their vending machines, in their a la carte lines, in their snack shops, and at their student fundraisers?

Nutrition standards have sparked a bit of a political battle with two camps—those who see child obesity as an urgent issue that warrants swift action and those who say moving too quickly has left schools struggling to comply with new regulations.

The next rollout of ratcheted-up school nutrition regulations under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 includes Smart Snacks in Schools standards, which go into effect July 1. Like every other phase of the student nutrition transformation, the snacks rules have been criticized by some lawmakers and interest groups, who've suggested that the U.S. Department of Agriculture should give districts additional time to comply.

The new standards, announced last year, will be the first efforts the USDA has made to regulate all foods and drinks sold during the school day in schools participating in the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs, even the foods that are never served on a lunch tray. The foods under the rule, so called competitive foods, include those that are typically out of the authority of school nutrition directors. The rules cap things like sodium, sugar, fat, and caffeine; and they ban all drinks but water, milk, and juice for younger students.

Some opponents of the new snack standards have painted a picture of compliance as an impossible, instantaneous change from serving greasy nachos one day to serving flavorless kale chips the next. But supporters of the standards say that their nutritional requirements are not that severe (a variety of kid-friendly foods make the cut) and that many states and districts already have similar rules in place.

A study of state policies on snacks in schools during the 2012-13 school year, published today in Childhood Obesity, says that 38 states had snack food and beverage standards. No state law fully met the USDA's new standards. Sixteen states fully met at least one provision, 10 states' laws partially met at least one, and seven states' laws met no USDA provisions.  A state might partially meet a standard by matching or surpassing USDA's rules for elementary school students but not older children, for example. 

On average, states met 4 of 18 provisions, says the study, which was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. States were closer to compliance with standards for beverages than they were with food standards.

Read the whole study here and see what you think. Is your school ready for July 1?

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