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Report: Healthy Vending, A La Carte Foods Won't Hurt School Revenue

From guest blogger Nirvi Shah:

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has yet to release proposed regulations for what's sold in school vending machines, school cafeteria a la carte lines, and school stores, among other places, regulations that were supposed to be out this spring.

The longer the USDA waits, the longer it will take for the agency to comb through comments it is sure to get by the bushel, delaying the issuing of final regulations and pushing off when schools actually have to start making changes to what food is sold on campus outside of the traditional meals of lunch and breakfast. Consider that the only regulations on the books now about what can be sold at school aside from lunches and breakfasts were issued in 1979 and only applies to food sold in the cafeteria during mealtime. Foods of "minimal nutritional value" are banned.

Well and Good

The 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act ordered the USDA to tackle the nutritional value of these alternate offerings.

"A lot has changed in terms of what we know about nutrition" since then, said Jessica Donze Black, director of the Pew Health Group's Kids' Safe & Healthful Foods Project. Back in the 70s, she said, nearly all the food ever available at school was in the cafeteria. Now, essentially, it's OK to sell sodas at school, even during lunch, so long as the vending machines aren't inside the cafeteria.

The Kids' Safe & Healthful Foods Project and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation teamed up to analyze the effects of changing the makeup of so-called "competitive foods" sold at school. These are foods sold regularly on campus, so it's likely that bake sale fare, as well as chocolates and candy sold as part of school fund-raising efforts won't be affected by the regulations.

For one thing, they found that the less access students have to unhealthy foods and beverages, the less they buy it and the less they are impacted by the related health effects. Their assessment mentions a 2006 article in Pediatrics in which a physician said that the increase in the weight of children from 1998 to 2002 "may have been prevented by an average reduction of 110-165 calories per day. This is the difference between providing an elementary school student a 150-calorie snack rather than a 250-calorie snack, as indicated by the child's daily energy needs."

Another big factor, however, is that many of the competitive foods sold in school are there to make schools money, and switching to healthier options that might not sell as well, as was the case in Seattle, could be a sore point for schools. Seattle's school board just voted to allow advertising on some school athletic fields and other areas to make up for the lost revenue, rather than start offering more appealing, but perhaps less healthy, competitive foods on campuses.

Pew and RWJF conclude that districts aren't likely to see a decline in revenue, however, and might actually collect more money because more students will eat traditional school meals. They did say, however, that there's limited data out there about how food sold for fund-raising efforts is affected by food and beverage policies in schools.

Another conclusion: For kids who are at greater risk of nutrition-related health problems, the new regulations could be especially beneficial.

The groups recommend that USDA require that for all foods sold outside of school meal programs, there should be age-appropriate calorie limits, a limit on what percentage of calories come from sugar, limits on fat, and limits on sodium that take effect over time. Drinks sold in elementary and middle schools should be limited to water, low-fat or fat-free milk, and fruit juice that is 100 percent juice. In high school, drinks should be limited by calorie and size to minimize the calories high school students get from sugar-sweetened drinks. In addition, the USDA should be clear on what foods the rules apply to, clarifying whether or not they do indeed apply to school fund-raisers and the like.

There are lots of guesses about why the USDA is taking so long to unveil the new regulations. It's an election year, for one thing, and the fight over the content of school meals was messy, with food lobbyists intervening before USDA could even finish its proposal. But the agency is under pressure, and even some big food companies including Nestle and Kraft, have joined nutrition groups and the medical community in urging the USDA to work faster.

Hypothetically, if the USDA issues proposed regulations in October of this year and takes a year to finalize them (how long it took to complete the school meal rules.), they'd take effect in October 2013. But schools don't have to fully implement such changes for a year after they're adopted. So fast-forward to October 2014. And schools also don't have to implement changes mid-year. Fast-forward again to the 2015-16 school year for these regulations to take effect.

That's the same year the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, the current version of the Child Nutrition Act, will be up for renewal.

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