New school nutrition requirements extend to snacks, beverages and a la carte cafeteria items

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

Schools will have to provide students with healthier snacks and beverages during the school day this year as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture‘s Smart Snacks in School” standards.

The Hunger-Free Kids Act, which gave schools three years to make their menus healthier with more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, less fat and sodium and smaller portion sizes, added similar nutritional guidelines to all snacks and beverages served during the school day, starting July 1.

“Nothing is more important than the health and well-being of our children,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a press release. “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.”

Changes in the nutritional guidelines for school meals were made in an effort to fight childhood obesity, a real problem in Kentucky, with 16.5 percent of children in Kentucky obese, according to the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The new standards will apply to all snacks or “extras,” including a la carte items in the cafeteria, snacks in school stores, snack bars and vending machines, until 30 minutes after the end of the official school day. The standards will not affect food sold at after-school sporting events or other activities.

Until this year, students have been allowed to purchase certain “extras” and a la carte items in the lunch line, giving students a “loophole” to continue unhealthy eating habits at school, Kacie Goode reports for the Kentucky Standard in Bardstown.

“I’m hopeful this restriction will encourage healthier choices and discourage skipping the good stuff for less healthy snack foods,” April Peach, director of school nutrition for Nelson County, told the Nelson County School Board, Goode reports.

The standards have some flexibility. The USDA press release says students can continue to bring what they choose from home for lunch, treats for special occasions will still be allowed, and fundraisers and bake sales that involve food outside the standards can be permitted. Schools can also impose rules stricter than the standards, which set a minimum.

Schools will have one year to implement the changes. Sue Bartenfield, program manager for the schools branch in the state Department of Education‘s Division of Schools and Community Nutrition, said in a phone interview that the agency does not kept data on how many schools in Kentucky had already made these changes but “the competitive food rules in Kentucky were fairly strict already.”

“We had to take the federal and state guidelines and go with the most restrictive,” she said.

Another change allows schools to offer the entree item as an a la carte food on the day it is served as part of the meal, and the day after. These entrees will be exempt from the nutritional standards on those days, since they will be considered to be a healthy choice for students who don’t want the whole meal. However, side items, snack foods, beverages and any entrees not served as part of the meal must comply with the set nutritional standards if they are sold a la carte.

“We can’t just sell an extra order of french fries, because it doesn’t meet (nutritional) requirements to be sold a la carte,” Peach explained at the Nelson County meeting. “It’s good enough to go on a plate to make a meal, but it’s not healthy enough to sell them an extra serving.”

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