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Rage against the machines

Alissa Widman Neese • Jul 19, 2013 at 4:01 PM

Kids, you’d best ditch your cookies and candy for a fresh fruit cup.

By this time next year, your school-day diet may face some big changes.

In July 2014, schools nationwide will be forced to remove junk food, soda and sugary snacks from their vending machines and a la carte menus, according to recently released requirements from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The goal is to eliminate a gap in nutritional standards that allows students to load up on fat, sugar and salt, despite guidelines for healthy meals. Many students nationwide opt to use lunch money to purchase unhealthy snacks, making the requirements necessary to improve child well-being, nutrition lobbyists say.

The new “Smart Snacks in School” rules will take effect in the 2014-15 school year and will only impact items offered during school hours. Many schools have already proactively implemented the changes.

Locally, most school officials believe their districts will be virtually unaffected by the switch.

The rules logically build on revamped school lunch nutrition standards required by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, said Sue Whitaker, Huron Schools food service director.

“We knew this was coming for four or five years and we’ve made adjustments, so most kids won’t notice anything too different,” Whitaker said.

And at many school districts, including Huron, Norwalk and Edison, vending machines are only available for after-school use anyway, typically for students involved in extracurricular activities.

Other districts, such as Sandusky Schools, do not offer students vending machines at all.

Several snacks can make the national grade if schools provide their healthier counterpart, Whitaker said. Baked potato chips, fruit juices, granola bars and peanuts, for example, are viable substitutes for cookies, sodas and candy.

Nonetheless, districts nationwide could face challenges in implementing the standards.

The new standards pose a fine line, Whitaker warned — foods must be healthy, but students must also actually purchase them for schools to make a profit. The rules don’t apply to packed lunches, treats and snacks students bring from home. They’re also very costly to implement, especially when most districts currently make little or no profit from their lunch programs.

“School lunches used to be just like cooking for your family, you cooked what kids really liked and they ate it and enjoyed it,” Whitaker said. “It’s a little different ballgame now with all the regulations. We manage, but that doesn’t always mean the kids will like it, especially if they’re not used to eating those foods at home.”

Norwalk Schools superintendent Dennis Doughty agreed. His district eliminated pop from its drink vending machines more than a year ago. Students now only have access to water and flavored water after school.

“It’s not that all of these requirements aren’t good, because it’s the opposite,” Doughty said. “But any time you increase nutritional requirements, you’re increasing your bottom line cost, which is what a lot of districts are dealing with right now.”

“Smart Snacks in Schools”nutrition standards Q&A

Q: What do the new standards do?

A: The new standards, required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, will require all schools to only provide snacks which meet certain standards for fat, saturated fat, sugar and sodium, while encouraging snacks which have whole grains, low fat dairy, fruits, vegetables or protein foods as main ingredients.

Q: Do the new standards affect snacks or lunches my child brings from home?

A: No.

Q: Do the new standards affect snacks provided or available for purchase at after-school events?

A: No, the standards only apply during school hours.

Q: Why is this necessary?

A: Students are already receiving healthier school lunches, according to standards required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These standards will put snacks — typically a la carte items and items purchased in vending machines — at the same standards.

Q: Who will be affected?

A: The new standards will be the minimum requirements for all schools nationwide, starting in the 2014-15 school year.

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