As public interest in healthier food for school children continues to increase, the U.S. Department of Agriculture continues to strengthen its federal nutrition standards.
Updated guidelines for the USDA Meal Pattern program that took effect in 2012 and a specialized Smart Snack program set basic nutritional standards for school lunch and snack programs and focus on improving the nutrition levels of all food sold on school campuses.
For example, last year a requirement was added to the Meal Pattern that a fruit or vegetable be placed on a child’s tray to make the meal reimbursable under the national school lunch program.
The key change this year is a requirement for the first time that all grain items must be whole grains, which USDA defines as having at least 51 percent whole grain content.
The USDA guidelines also place limits on things like sodium levels, total calories of a snack item, and the percentage of calories that can come from saturated fat.
The Smart Snack program, funded by Congress under the Reauthorization Act of 2010, gave USDA for the first time the authority to regulate all food sold during the school day by schools that participate in the national school lunch program. The school day is defined as lasting from 12:01 a.m. until 30 minutes after the bell that ends the school day.
That means that organizations that are doing things like serve food at a football or basketball game or social event in the evening are exempted from the guidelines, explained Robin Safley, director of the division of food, nutrition and wellness at Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs.
The guidelines only refer to food that is sold during the school day.
That means, however, that vending machines are affected by the new guidelines. Some items that do not meet the federal standards must be removed.
“But because we as a society are moving toward healthier food, there are already items in vending machines, such as baked potato chips or granola bars, that are healthier and do meet the guidelines,” Safley said.
One challenging issue lately, however, has been the fact that the new USDA rules prohibit fundraisers that involve food that does not meet the strict federal standards unless the state provides an exemption.
In May, FDACS held three public workshops to develop a state-level rule that allows for limited exemptions for fundraisers that do not meet USDA standards. Safley stressed that the issue is limited to food sold on campus during the school day, as defined by the guidelines.
On July 11, FDACS published a new rule that allows high schools to hold such fundraisers for up to 15 days each year. The limit is 10 days for middle schools and five days for elementary schools.
“So for example,” Safley said, “a high school can say, every Thursday afternoon for the next 15 weeks, we’re going to hold a fundraiser that does not meet the USDA guidelines.”
The good news, in terms of public policy, Safley said, is that more and more parents are interested in healthier food being served to their children in schools.
Beverly Girard, director of food and nutrition services at Sarasota County Schools, noted that a commitment to healthier food for students is nothing new in Florida. Sarasota County and other counties have been at the leading edge of progressive school nutrition for years.
For example, Girard said, Sarasota County has worked with FDACS for a long time to bring healthier foods such as more fruits and vegetables into schools.
“This is not new territory for Sarasota County,” Girard said. “We have been working to make
sure children eat more fruits and vegetables for years now. And now, we are embracing the latest USDA changes, because for the most part these are things we’ve already been doing. In fact, I’d say that in many cases the USDA rules have just caught up to what many of us have been doing in Florida for years.”