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USDA hands down new rules limiting junk food sales for school groups

POSTED: May 12, 2014 12:17 a.m.

More food items in schools are soon to be under the purview of the federal government as new rules concerning nutritional content are set to go into effect July 1.

It’s all part of the new Smart Snacks in Schools program, enacted by the United States Department of Agriculture.

It’s the newest phase of setting nutritional standards in schools, adding on to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which set policies for both school lunch and breakfast programs.

The rules dictate what can be sold on school property during school hours — which are defined as from midnight to 30 minutes after the end of the official school day.

“That includes school stores, school parking lots, anywhere in the school,” Gainesville City Schools Nutrition Coordinator Emily House said.

For example, if school ends at 3 p.m., then all food is up for grabs beginning at 3:30 — but not a minute earlier.

Until then, basic guidelines include that a food must be a grain product with 50 percent or more whole grains, or have the first ingredient be either fruit, vegetables, dairy or protein foods.

Snacks have to be 200 calories or fewer, while entrees can be up to 350 calories.

Some of the edible fundraising items currently sold on school grounds, like fast food chicken biscuits and glazed doughnuts, are no longer allowed — neither meet the caloric requirements, and are generally high in sugar and fat.

“And the sodium — I mean, the chicken biscuit, just the chicken patty by itself has 990 milligrams of sodium,” House said. Entree items won’t be able to have more than 480 milligrams of sodium under the new rules.

Vending machines and ice cream freezers will also be hit by the changes.

Since these are new federal guidelines and impact all public schools, House expects fast food restaurants and other food providers for fundraising campaigns will take a look at their offerings.

But it’s not all about restriction and shouldn’t be viewed that way, House said; she explained many companies already offer options that do fit within the new guidelines.

“There are a huge number of ice creams offered by Mayfield that comply,” she said. “I know the ice cream boxes are a big generator of funds for schools.”

Other items that make the cut include some Quaker granola bars, whole-grain cheese puffs and whole-grain Rice Krispy treats.

“It’s a whole-grain alternative to what they’re used to, but honestly what we found is they can’t really tell the difference,” House said.

There are some pretty broad exceptions within the new rules; concession stands are exempt from the new rules, so popcorn, nachos and hot dogs can remain standard fare at athletic events. On the fundraising side of things, food items may be sold if they’re not meant to be consumed on school grounds.

For example, a giant chocolate chip cookie may not meet the new requirements during school hours, but a club can sell cookie dough.

“It also does not apply to school parties, like in the classroom,” House said. “It doesn’t apply to teachers’ lounges unless students have access to it. So if a teacher wanted to bring cupcakes for her children, she definitely could do that.”

Food items brought from home also don’t fall under these new guidelines.

The new rules are not without some controversy. The Chicago Tribune reported May 9 that a school district in its readership area is scheduled to vote Thursday on whether or not to drop out of the National School Lunch Program.

The Tribune reported, if the district drops out, it stands to lose around $900,000 in federal money. But the district receives $2.2 million from its a la carte menu, selling items like pizza and fries — some of which may not fit the new Smart Snacks guidelines.

Regardless, thousands of public schools across the country will be expected to abide by these guidelines beginning July 1.

The USDA will provide technical support to schools unable to follow the guidelines, though there are no set punishments in place for violators, according to House. She expects some of the rules to be modified as the new guidelines are put into practice.

“We are simply the messenger,” House said. “We have to go by these same rules too, and we’re trying to be as helpful as possible.”


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