Last week the Massachusetts Public Health Council made news by promulgating, at the direction of the state’s Governor, new statewide guidelines for competitive foods sold in schools. (By way of reminder, “competitive” foods are those foods sold on school campuses outside of the scope of the federal meal program, such as “a la carte” foods sold in the cafeteria or vending machines by a district to raise revenues, as well as foods sold at sporting events, team and PTO/PTA fundraisers, etc.)
Here are the new Massachusetts requirements:
Those standards require that all competitive items, with the exception of a la carte entr es, be limited to 200 calories per item, with less than 35 percent of those calories coming from fat, less than 20 percent from saturated fat, and less than 30 percent from sugars, with exceptions for fruit and low-fat yogurt.
By August 2013, in time for the 2013-2014 school year, schools will also have to make available the nutritional information of some non-prepackaged competitive items.
In issuing these standards for competitive foods, Massachusetts may be trying to get a jump on new federal rules for competitive foods which are supposed to be issued this December, a requirement of last year’s passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.
The Massachusetts rules deserve the accolades they’ve received and the rules will certainly improve the food made available to kids on school campuses across the Commonwealth. However, just looking around my own Houston district, I see a lot of items sold “a la carte” in our cafeterias which meet even the relatively stringent Massachusetts rules — but you still wouldn’t want to see a kid make a meal out of them (as many of them do.) Here are just a few (and sorry for the weird layout – technical difficulties):
My fear is that once the new federal competitive food rules are in place across the board, we’re going to see major manufacturers of processed foods simply rejigger their formulas to meet the new nutritional requirements. In this regard, I’m reminded of attending my district’s “Food Show” earlier this year and seeing “veggie stix” and a cheese-coated “lentil chip” designed to help school districts meet the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act’s new vegetable requirements.
The bottom line is that highly processed foods are profitable to school districts, and district contracts are profitable to food manufacturers. Until that relationship is modified, processed junk will still find its way into many school lunch rooms.
One large school district, however, has taken a different approach. My source in San Francisco, school food reformer Dana Woldow, tells me that at the direction of the district’s Student Nutrition Director (a man named Ed Wilkins) San Francisco simply removed all “a la carte foods” from its lunch rooms. The district now offers (mostly at the middle and high school levels) many more options that are part of the federal meal, such as pasta and sandwich stations. Not only does this system mean that kids can no longer make a lunch out of a bag of Cheetos (unless they bring it from home), it also reduces the very real social stigma created when kids with money in their pockets can buy enticing junk food while poorer kids have to eat the comparatively “uncool” school meal. (I addressed the stigma problem in an early Lunch Tray post: “A La Carte – A World Apart?“)
Moreover, for food sold in campus vending machines, starting in the 2003-04 school year San Francisco instituted a “no empty calories” policy, meaning any food sold in a vending machine must not only contain sufficiently low levels of fats, sodium and sugar, it must also provide positive nutrients like protein, Vitamins A and C, iron, etc. In addition, Dana Woldow tells me that the district retains the discretion to reject a food even if it meets the “no empty calories” criteria, so “doctored junk food” can be kept off campuses if the district chooses.
So while the Massachusetts rules are a great first step, I think San Francisco’s policies represent the next move in greatly improving a school’s food environment. Houston’s School Health Advisory Council (on which I serve) is interested in discussing similar policies with Houston ISD during the coming school year. I’ll let you know of our progress.
[Ed Note: This post initially credited Dana Woldow for the abolishment of a la carte foods in San Francisco schools and has been corrected to give credit to student nutriton director Ed Wilkins. Says Dana, “This was his idea, and he and his assistant director Zetta Reiker worked hard to make it happen; all I did was support them.“]
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