By Michelle Fay Cortez and Stephanie Armour
WASHINGTON — Junk food and sugary drinks will be pulled from schools next year as part of a nutritional overhaul aimed at improving child health and tackling obesity.
The "Smart Snacks in School" standards released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture takes such options as full-fat chocolate cookies, fruit snacks and candy bars offered at lunch and in vending machines, replacing them with healthier foods such as peanuts, light popcorn and fruit cups. Elementary and middle school children can drink water, milk and juice, while high school students also will be offered beverages with 60 calories or fewer in a 12-ounce serving.
The snack rules, which had been proposed in February, take effect in July 2014, giving schools and suppliers time to adjust to requirements that promote foods high in whole grains, dairy, fruits and vegetables, the USDA said. The guidelines don't apply to foods sold after school or brought from home. Bake sales, fundraisers and sweet treats at parties are still allowed.
"It's important to teach children healthy eating habits that will affect their health throughout their lives," said Margo Wootan, the nutrition policy director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based consumer advocacy group, who has worked on the issue for more than 15 years. "It doesn't make sense for schools to teach nutrition in the classroom, then counter it by selling sugary drinks and candy bars in vending machines in the hallway."
The snack rules build on the revamped nutritional standards for school lunches and breakfasts enacted about a year ago. The agency reviewed almost 250,000 comments from teachers, students, and health and industry officials stemming from the proposal.
"Parents and schools work hard to give our youngsters the opportunity to grow up healthy and strong, and providing healthy options throughout school cafeterias, vending machines, and snack bars will support their great efforts," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement.
The requirements are part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which seeks to curb child obesity by changing food in schools and promoting healthy eating. The law required the Agriculture Department to set nutrition standards for items sold during the school day, known as "competitive foods."
The agency has jurisdiction since it oversees the federal school-lunch program, which provides low-cost and free lunches in 100,000 public and non-profit private schools. Thirty-nine states already have standards in place governing the foods offered at school, aimed at bolstering nutrition.
"Altogether, the policy and the set of standards that USDA announced is stronger than what exists in any states and most school districts I can think of," Wootan said by telephone.
Children consume as many as half their daily calories in school, where they spend more time than any location except their homes, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, which underwrites food safety programs. Studies show snacks add 112 calories to the average elementary-school student's daily diet, and those who live in states with strong snack policies gain less weight over three years than those without regulations.
The USDA rules limit salt, sugar and fats, with exemptions for natural products including nuts and seeds, dried fruits and fat-rich seafood. Each item must contain less than 200 calories, including accompaniments, and no trans fats.
There are specific requirements for what is allowed in each item. The first ingredient must be whole grain, vegetable, fruit, dairy or type of protein. Combination foods must have at least one-quarter cup of a fruit or vegetable. If water is first on the label, then one of those ingredients must be second.
There is an exception to the stringent requirements. Foods that provide at least 10 percent of the recommended daily value of calcium, potassium, vitamin D and dietary fiber are also allowed, at least temporarily. Starting in 2016, those nutrients must come naturally, rather than from fortification.
"After a phase-in period, companies won't be able to just fortify foods with cheap nutrients and call them healthy," Wootan said. "It's the difference between fortified junk food and real food."