'Smart snack' guidelines get favorable reviews

by Eric Schroeder
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The U.S. Department of Agriculture has submitted its proposed rule for foods sold in schools that are outside the purview of the National School Lunch Program (N.S.L.P.) to the Office of the Federal Register for publication. The so-called “Smart snacks in school” proposed rule draws on recommendations from the Institute of Medicine and existing voluntary standards already implemented in some school districts.

Under the proposal, any food sold in schools must be a fruit, vegetable, dairy product, protein-based food, whole grain-rich, or a combination food that contains at least a quarter cup of fruits or vegetables. Or, the foodstuff must contain 10% of the daily value of a nutrient cited as a public health concern in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, such as calcium, potassium, vitamin D or fiber.

A product’s total fat content must be less than 35% of calories, while saturated fat must be less than 10% calories and it must have 0 grams of trans-fatty acids. Exemptions are provided in the proposal for reduced fat cheese, nuts and nut butters without other ingredients and seafood with no added fat.

Snacks must contain less than 200 mg of sodium, and non-N.S.L.P. entree items must have less than 480 mg of sodium. For total sugar levels, the proposal features two alternatives: less than 35% of calories or less than 35% of weight. Exemptions to the sugar proposal are provided for fruits and vegetables packed in juice or extra-light syrup and for certain yogurts.

Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut said she was especially encouraged by what she referred to as “landmark steps forward on sugar and sodium.”

“This proposal must not be weakened and should be implemented in a timely manner,” Ms. DeLauro said.

Snack items may have a limit on calories of less than 200 per portion while non-N.S.L.P. entree items will have a proposed limit of less than 350 calories.

Better beverage options?

The proposal also states schools may sell plain water, plain low-fat milk, plain or flavored fat-free milk and milk alternatives permitted by the N.S.L.P., and 100% fruit or vegetable juice. Portion sizes of milk and juice vary by the age of students. Elementary schools may sell up to 8-oz portions. Middle schools and high schools may sell up to 12-oz portions.

Connie Tipton, president and chief executive officer of the International Dairy Foods Association, Washington, commended the U.S.D.A. for highlighting the importance of dairy.

“The proposed rule would make low-fat and fat-free milk available in a variety of locations, not just the school lunch line,” Ms. Tipton said.

The U.S.D.A. proposal offers additional beverage options in high schools. They include 20-oz servings or less for calorie-free, flavored or unflavored carbonated water and other calorie-free beverages that comply with the Food and Drug Administration standard of less than 5 calories per serving.

Additionally, the proposal would allow 12-oz servings of other beverages within a specified calorie limit. The proposed rule offers two alternatives for the limit: The first is less than or equal to 40 calories per 8-oz serving, and the second is 50 calories per 12-oz serving.

The rule also explicitly states such beverages shall not be available in the meal service area during the meal service periods.

“U.S.D.A.’s proposed regulations reflect the success of the industry guidelines, which were developed by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation and implemented in schools across the country more than two years ago,” the American Beverage Association noted in its response to the announcement. “Research published last year in the American Journal of Public Health confirmed that full-calorie soft drinks have been removed from schools nationwide through this initiative and that beverage calories shipped to schools were reduced by 90% between 2004 and the end of the 2009-2010 school year. Practical approaches such as these will continue to have meaningful and lasting impact for generations of schoolchildren to come.”

Would establish national baseline

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently issued a report that analyzed state policies for food and beverages served outside the school lunch line that noted 39 states already have a state law, regulation or policy in place related to the availability of snack foods and beverages in schools. In many cases, local policies and practices exceeded state requirements or recommendations. The U.S.D.A. said its proposal would establish a national baseline of the standards, with the overall goal of improving the health and nutrition of children.

“Good nutrition lays the groundwork for good health and academic success,” said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. “Providing healthy options throughout school cafeterias, vending machines, and snack bars will complement the gains made with the new, healthy standards for school breakfast and lunch so the healthy choice is the easy choice for our kids.”

The School Nutrition Association (S.N.A.), which is a national, non-profit professional organization representing 55,000 school nutrition professionals across the country, echoed Mr. Vilsack’s goal of providing healthy options for schools.

“School nutrition professionals have been working hard to increase nutritious choices available in the cafeteria by serving more whole grains, fruits and vegetables and limiting the sodium and fat in meals — all part of ongoing efforts to implement new nutrition standards for school meals,” said Sandra Ford, president of the S.N.A. “S.N.A. looks forward to reviewing the details of these newly proposed competitive food regulations and providing feedback through the public comment process.”

The proposed rule was welcomed by numerous industry groups, including the United Fresh Produce Association and the American Bakers Association.

“Increasing the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables as snacks in schools will go a long way towards creating a healthy school food environment and improving nutrition for millions of school children,” said Lorelei DiSogra, vice-president of nutrition and health for United Fresh. ”In addition, this will drive opportunities for increased produce sales to schools.”

Lee Sanders, senior vice-president of government relations and public affairs at the A.B.A., said the bakers’ group is reviewing the new proposal and was set to take part in a U.S.D.A. briefing on Feb. 8 to learn more about the proposal’s impact on grain-based foods.

“The proposal seeks to expand promotion of more healthy choices for all foods served during the school day, including additional whole grains choices,” Ms. Sanders said. “It would limit fats, sugars and sodium in these foods. The proposal does allow flexibility for birthdays, bake sales and fundraisers. It also does not limit what parents can send to school in the lunch box.”

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