As I told you last week on this blog’s Facebook page, the USDA has released its interim final rules for “competitive” foods and beverages offered on school campuses. But I didn’t want to share this news here on the blog until I’d taken some time to parse through the new rules so I could share my own analysis.
Just to bring everyone up to speed, “competitive” food and beverages are those offered in competition with the federally subsidized school meal, and are sold via vending machines, school stores, fundraisers, snack bars operated by the school cafeteria and other outlets. Back in February, USDA released proposed rules for regulating these items, and overall they were regarded as a big leap forward in fostering children’s health during the school day. (I won’t recap here all of the details of the proposed rules, but this Lunch Tray post will give you a solid overview.)
After the release of the proposed rules, there was an open comment period in which I submitted my own letter to USDA outlining my top four concerns. (You can read the full text of my letter here.) In this post I want to tell you the outcome of those issues:
The Death of “Baked Flamin’ Hot Cheetos With Calcium?”
It the proposed rules, USDA said it hoped to “encourage consumption of whole foods or foods closer to their whole state . . . .” by requiring that key nutrients in school snacks be “naturally occurring.” For that reason, under the proposed rules, school snack foods had to fall into one of two categories: they either had to be a fruit, vegetable, dairy product, protein food, “whole-grain rich” grain product, or a “combination food” that contains at least 1⁄4 cup of fruit or vegetable; OR they had to contain 10% of the Daily Value (DV) of naturally occurring calcium, potassium, vitamin D, or fiber.
That was great news, of course. We all want to see kids eating more whole fruits, whole grains and the like. But after thinking about this proposed two-tier system, it occurred to me that packaged food companies could shoehorn their highly processed products into the second category simply by fortifying them with a natural ingredient. In other words, couldn’t Frito Lay add nonfat dry milk powder to Baked Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and then claim they contain “naturally occurring calcium”?
For that reason, in my letter to USDA I advocated what I thought was a rather radical idea — getting rid of the “naturally occurring” standard altogether. I wrote:
I recommend that USDA simply drop this second, nutrient-only-based category of permissible foods. If only fruits, vegetables, dairy products, protein foods, whole grain rich foods and combination foods are offered to schoolchildren, then we can rest assured that they will certainly be consuming a wide variety of nutrients, including the four nutrients of special concern: calcium, potassium, vitamin D, and fiber.
But since I didn’t see this idea put forth by any of the leading food policy groups I follow, I assumed my recommendation was such an outlier that it would never be considered by the agency.
Well, lo and behold, the USDA is getting rid of the fortification category — over a three year period. The interim final rule states:
For the period through June 30, 2016, contain 10 percent of the Daily Value of a nutrient of public health concern based on the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans (i.e., calcium, potassium, vitamin D or dietary fiber). Effective July 1, 2016, this criterion is obsolete and may not be used to qualify as a competitive food;
USDA made this change for a variety of reasons, but regardless of its motivation, starting in school year 2016-17, the ONLY competitive foods which may be offered to kids are fruits, vegetables, dairy products, whole grain rich foods, protein foods or combinations foods with at least a 1/4 cup of fruits or vegetables. (And, by the way, before 2016, the fortification can be from any source, “naturally occurring” or not.)
Now I know the food industry isn’t going to just slink away from the lucrative school snack market, but given the rigorous standard that will go into effect in 2016, it seems to me that any processed foods still sold in schools after that date should no longer fall into the empty-calorie, “better-for-you” junk food category. That’s cause for real celebration.
“A la Carte” Foods Get a Pass
“A la carte” foods are foods sold in the school cafeteria but in competition with the federally funded meal, such as items sold on a school cafeteria snack bar line. Here in Houston ISD, I’ve long been distressed by some of the really supbar foods and beverages sold on our a la carte lines, and in my letter to USDA I urged the agency to “hold a la carte foods to the same nutritional standards as other any competitive food, regardless of whether they are also served on school menus.”
However, as was expected, the interim final rule states that an item sold on a cafeteria snack bar line is exempt from all of the nutrition standards we’ve been discussing above, so long as those foods are “sold on the day that they are offered as part of a reimbursable meal, or sold on the following school day.”
My concern about this loophole is that it might encourage school districts to keep what some call “carnival food” — e..g, pizza, burgers, hot dogs and fries — on their federal school meal menus, in part to preserve their ability to sell those items on a rolling basis on their a la carte lines. And when those items are available a la carte, it means that many kids will make their lunch from them on a daily basis, and without the accompanying and healthful fruits, vegetables and dairy they’d get in the federal meal line.
But on this question, I’m open to input from school food service workers and other experts in the field. Do you think my concerns are justified? Or do you think the recent overhaul of the federal school meal regulations will automatically result in relatively healthful a la carte entrees?
Sugary Sports Drinks Are Out — But Diet Sports Drinks Are In
The next issue I raised had to do with sports drinks. USDA was considering two different calorie caps for certain “other beverages” sold in high schools: either 40 calories per 8-ounce serving or 50 calories per 8 ounces. Those 10 calories made all the difference to sports drinks manufacturers since, according to USDA:
The higher 50 calorie limit would permit the sale of some national brand sports drinks in their standard formulas. The lower 40 calorie limit would only allow the sale of reduced-calorie versions of those drinks. The 50 calorie alternative would open the door to a class of competitive beverages with great market strength and consumer appeal. Such a change might generate significant revenue for schools and student groups.
I urged USDA to choose the lower, 40-calorie cap as studies indicate that children are drinking sugar-sweetened sports drinks with greater frequency and in greater amounts than ever before, yet are not engaged in more physical activity.
I was pleasantly surprised to see that USDA chose the lower cap, which would have the effect of banning the highest-calorie versions of sports drinks. However, beverage companies have reformulated– or likely soon will reformulate –diet or reduced-calorie versions of their sports drinks to continue to be able to sell to schools. Whether you regard this as a victory depends how you feel about making non-nutritive sweeteners available to kids on a widespread basis. (You already know what I think about that.)
Exempt Food Fundraisers – Up to the States
Finally, USDA offered two schemes for regulating the use of junk food in school fundraisers. One proposal left it entirely up to the states to determine how often such exempt fundraisers can take place, and the other allowed some USDA oversight. Because I have seen firsthand here in Houston ISD how fundraisers selling junk food can have a real and negative impact on student health, I endorsed the second approach.
Instead, USDA left this issue up to the states, with the vague caveat that such fundraisers must be “infrequent” along with a statement that the agency expects that “the frequency of such exempt fundraisers . . . [will] not reach a level to impair the effectiveness of the competitive food requirements in this rule.”
My concern is that in this era of draconian state education budget cuts (here in Texas, we rank second to last in per-student spending), state agencies, under pressure from cash-strapped districts, might be far too liberal in allowing these exempt — but often quite lucrative — fundraisers.
Only time will tell, and I’ll have more to say about this knotty issue in a future post.
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