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What Does USDA's "Smart Snacks in Schools" Mean for School Nutrition in California?

February 05, 2013 | Cyndi Walter

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) made a smart first step to promote children's health, with the release of “Smart Snacks in Schools.” " Smart Snacks" proposes minimum nutrition standards for competitive foods and beverages sold in schools that are not part of the school meal program.

A key component of “Smart Snacks in Schools” is that states and school districts can keep or adopt standards that go above and beyond the proposed federal standards. This is especially important in California as we don’t want to lose momentum on the strides many school districts have made to go above and beyond California’s legislated nutrition standards.

California was one of the leading states in the nation to adopt competitive food and beverage standards, requiring implementation of competitive food standards in July 2007 and beverage standards to be 100% compliant by July 2009.

Comparing the Standards

California Project LEAN is in the process of analyzing how the federal standards differ from California’s competitive food and beverage standards. A preliminary analysis shows differences in a number of areas.

Beverage standards, for example, are different in the following ways:

  • Federal minimum standards, if passed, would allow for diet and low-calorie artificially-sweetened beverages in high schools, but not in the meal service area during meal service periods.  These drinks are currently prohibited in any California public school per state legislation.
  • The federal standards allow lower calorie electrolyte replacement beverages, more commonly known as sports drinks, in high schools, only. California law allows higher sugary sports drinks in middle and high schools.  
  • Federal standards also would allow for caffeinated beverages in high schools, which currently are prohibited by California law in any public school.
  • While California allows 2% reduced fat, 1% lowfat and nonfat milk to be sold in public schools, the proposed federal law would prohibit 2% milk from being sold.

In some cases, the proposed federal standards are nutritionally stronger than California standards. Higher sugary sports drinks, for example, would be banned in middle and high schools and that goes a long way toward decreasing access to sugary beverages since research has shown that when California banned sodas from public schools, sports drinks became one of the most frequently offered beverage for sale in middle and high schools.

In other areas, however, the proposed standards, which provide a minimum guideline, allow for products such as caffeinated beverages and artificially-sweetened diet and low-calorie drinks in high schools that we would rather not introduce.  Although caffeinated and diet drinks are low- or no-calorie, they don’t provide the nutrients that children need for growth.  Plus, these drinks might replace other foods and beverages that do provide nutrients that children need. Schools should provide the most nutritious products possible.

And the Survey Says

Field Poll results released recently by CA4Health, the PHI Community Transformation Grant project focusing on rural California counties, show strong community support in rural areas (61% favor strongly; 18% favor somewhat) for strengthening school nutrition standards to limit the types of unhealthy foods and drinks sold in schools. Additionally, other California surveys in previous years have shown similar support for stricter nutrition standards in schools.

Research has shown that implementing competitive food and beverage standards can have a positive impact on reducing the risk for obesity-related chronic diseases. A national study comparing California high school students with those from states with no competitive food and beverage standards found that California students consumed fewer calories, less fat and less sugar. 

A More Thorough Analysis is Underway

California Project LEAN will conduct a more thorough analysis of the proposed federal standards over the next few weeks. The proposed standards are part of a comprehensive effort required by the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 to ensure school environments help make healthy choices easier to access for all public school students, whether they participate in the federally- subsidized school meals or purchase foods and beverages from snack bars, student stores or vending machines.

California Project LEAN, through its PHI-funded grants, will continue its 20-year history of working with California school districts across the state to adopt the best possible nutrition standards that contribute needed nutrients for our public school students.

The proposed USDA standards can be found at http://www.fns.usda.gov/cga/020113-snacks.pdf.  Once the USDA standards are published in the Federal Register, expected sometime this week, the public will have 60 days to provide feedback through www.regulations.gov.

More Resources

California Project Lean is a program of PHI. Visit their website at www.californiaprojectlean.org.

Cyndi Walter is director of Project LEAN