Federal regulators, fresh off a contentious nutritional overhaul of U.S. school meals that replaced fried chicken patties with chef salads, are now preparing the first standards for snacks, sodas and other foods sold outside of regularly scheduled lunch and breakfast. That means vending machines, concession stands and some types of PTA fundraisers during school hours may be forced to cut back the calories.
“We have Washington deciding if you can hold a bake sale,” Utah state Representative Ken Ivory, a Republican, said in an interview. “They’ve overstepped their bounds.”
The American Frozen Food Institute, a McLean, Virginia- based trade group that represents 90 percent of U.S. frozen-food production, said the fight for candy bars and snack cakes may be more fierce than President Barack Obama’s two-year battle over school entrees, which led to congressional intervention, rule rewrites and a compromise on categorizing pizza as a vegetable.
Danny Fisher, an author and 42-year-old mother raising five boys in Zanesville, Ohio, said too much emphasis is being put on limiting foods when the focus should be on increasing exercise.
“The idea of banning unhealthy food choices is paramount to Prohibition,” Fisher said in an interview by e-mail. “We all know how well that worked.”
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which led to regulations last month for lunches and breakfasts, also outlines requirements for the Agriculture Department to reset nutrition standards for items sold during the school day, known as “competitive foods.” The agency has jurisdiction as it oversees the federal school-lunch program, which provides low- cost and free lunches in public and non-profit private schools.
“We hope to publish the proposed rule this spring,” said Aaron Lavallee, a USDA spokesman, who wouldn’t elaborate on the department’s plans.
Based on guidelines in the law, changes to the competitive foods rules may affect schools’ activities clubs or sports teams that resell purchased goods, such as Nestle SA (NESN) candy bars and other sweets to help pay for supplies. The proposal also would have to set nutritional limits for food and beverages in vending machines such as PepsiCo Inc.’s Doritos and fast-food items sold in the cafeteria, such as Domino’s Pizza slices that students buy with pocket money.
These foods may have to meet fat, calorie, sodium or other requirements, possibly replacing French fries and chips with granola bars and corn nuts. Exemptions will be allowed for infrequent, school-sponsored fundraisers. The threshold for such exceptions is still to be decided by regulators.
James Martinez, who has 11-year-old stepson, said he is in favor of the new nutrition standards.
“You don’t want to be Draconian, but you do want to lead by example,” said Martinez, who is also a spokesman for the National Parent Teacher Association in Alexandria, Virginia, in an interview. “There needs to be a balance.”
Industry lobbying over the lunch standards led Congress to block an earlier USDA proposal that would have set limits on French fries and starchy vegetables, and increased the amount of tomato sauce required in pizza. The new rules for competitive foods will create controversy as well because schools rely on such products for fundraisers, said Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington consumer advocacy group.
New rules for competitive foods, which would be the first since 1979, are necessary to ensure schools don’t undermine parents’ efforts to provide better nutrition at home, she said.
“It’s a shame that schools have to raise money, but there’s no reason to turn to fundraisers that undermine health,” Wootan said. “There’s no need to sell a candy bar when you could sell calendars or light bulbs or fruit baskets.”
The proposal would be intended to curb child obesity -- a priority of First Lady Michelle Obama, who campaigned to get the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act passed. Some lawmakers and educators said they are concerned that schools will lose revenue as students may be less apt to buy healthier fare or pay the higher prices likely to be charged.
Some schools generated as much as $125,000 a year from selling competitive foods, according to an August 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office.
The “misplaced overregulation” may squelch income used by schools already facing the $3.2 billion cost of adopting the lunch and breakfast requirements, according to Anne Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association.
The proposal may also create financial burdens for schools to implement and for parents alike, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank D. Lucas, a Republican from Oklahoma, said in a Feb. 3 letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
“The current economic climate is one in which it is of the utmost importance to protect schools and working families from dramatically increased costs in the form of higher food costs and logistical demands on schools,” Lucas said in the letter, which was also signed by the top Democrat on the committee, Representative Collin Peterson of Minnesota. “The department should carefully consider the cost versus benefit of mandating schools to sell higher priced products or different products for the reimbursable and a la carte lines.”
U.S. law currently restricts few competitive foods, such as gum, from being offered in cafeterias during breakfast and lunch. Educators have been free to sell Domino’s Pizza (DPZ) or Taco Bell products on the side as an alternative to the day’s lunch, or have gym room vending machines stocked with Doritos. Almost half of elementary school students were able to buy unhealthy snacks in the 2009-2010 year, according to a study published Feb. 6 in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.
‘Smart Slice Pizza’
At Lincoln Public Schools in Nebraska, high school students can buy hamburgers, oven-baked fries, dessert and other items a la carte. Mandating healthier fare may drive students to buy it off-site, Edith Zumwalt, nutrition services director for the school system, said in an interview.
“If they don’t get food they want, they just leave,” said Zumwalt. “That’s more trouble.”
Some changes already have been made. Coca-Cola Co. (KO), PepsiCo and Cadbury Schweppes Plc in 2006 agreed to halt almost all soft drink sales in elementary and middle schools, and also to limit soda sales in high schools to diet drinks, under a deal brokered by former President Bill Clinton and the American Heart Association.
Domino’s Pizza Inc., which sells its Smart Slice to about 2 percent of the school lunch pizza market, already meets or exceeds the anticipated USDA standards, Tim McIntyre, a spokesman for the Ann Arbor, Michigan-based company, said in an e-mail. The sauce and pepperoni have less sodium, he said.
By 2007, more than 30 states had adopted standards for foods sold outside of the federal lunch program, according to a 2009 study by Samuels & Associates, a consulting company in Oakland, California. When changes were made, Kellogg Co. (K)’s Pop- Tarts and PepsiCo’s Funyuns were replaced by reduced-fat chips and granola bars.
“Schools that have made these changes have been able to maintain revenue, by alternate methods or by changing out items,” said Jessica Donze Black, director of the Washington- based Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project at the Pew Health Group, which advocates policies that reduce consumer risks.
Rebecca Ford, a senior special education teacher at Tooele High School in Tooele, Utah, said she hopes the bake sales her students help prepare each week won’t be considered too frequent to be allowed. Her students have autism, Down syndrome and other disabilities. The money is used for educational trips as well as to help students out, such as buying tennis shoes their parents can’t afford, she said.
“It teaches them money skills,” Ford said in an interview. “We tried different healthy items, but it wasn’t the same at all. They just sat around and got old. I’m not quite sure what we’ll do.”
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