Smart Snacks in School: New USDA Rules for School Vending Machines

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August 26, 2013

The USDA passed new “smart snack” regulations that will apply to public school settings.School lunches are always a topic of debate, but what about the vending machines? Parents can monitor school lunch offerings by packing a child’s lunch or making smart choices from the cafeteria menu. Unfortunately, it’s tough for parents to monitor what vending machines offer in the school. Items can change frequently depending on the vendor and the selection is typically packed with sugar, caffeine or empty calories.

New “Smart Snack” Rules in Schools

The USDA passed new “smart snack” regulations that will apply to public school settings. These rules will regulate the types of snacks that can be offered in vending machines. The regulation was heavily supported by First Lady Michelle Obama and features a variety of restrictions based on the school’s age base.

The new regulations aim to do the following:

  • Provide more of the foods we should encourage.
  • Provide less of the foods we should avoid.
  • Target beverage standards allowing variation by age group.
  • Allow flexibility for important traditions.

What Exactly are the New Restrictions?

The new regulations limit the amount of sugar, fat, saturated fat and sodium while encouraging products that contain whole grains, low fat dairy, fruits, vegetables and protein. In order to qualify as a “smart snack,” a food must have a fruit, vegetable, whole grain, dairy product, or protein as its first and major ingredient. This means some vending machine staples previously found at schools – such as regular sodas, cookies, fruit flavored candies, chocolate bars and donuts – will no longer be available. Instead the machines will feature peanuts, light popcorn, yogurt, granola bars, tortilla chips, fruit cups and flavored water.

Potential Downsides

Like with any new regulations, there are some downsides that should be discussed. The Dairy Industry lobbied hard to ensure that dairy products and sugar content were regulated in such a way that dairy would become a staple of the vending machine. One such lobbying effort that paid off was the use of “percentage of sugar by weight” rather than by calories. This ensured that dairy desserts would make the cut. In fact, some low fat ice cream items will be considered a “smart snack”.

The regulation also may encourage more GMO-heavy foods. Soy and corn are two of the biggest genetically modified crops available. The majority of corn and soy crops are genetically modified and unless purchased organic, one must assume the crop is GMO. Soy is a protein source and could be the first and major ingredient in any of the snacks, whereas corn is a vegetable and could be the first ingredient and pass the “smart snack” test.

Diary products that are treated with growth hormone are not restricted from the regulations. Many dairy providers now label their dairy products “hormone free” so that consumers know what they are purchasing. Hormones are on the decline due to consumer awareness. However, I can’t help but imagine that a school filled with small children and teens who may not be aware of the differences in labeling would be the perfect place to push hormone-containing milk products as the end consumer (the child or teen in this case) would be less likely to look for a product with hormone-free labels.

Ultimately parents still have the last say in what their children are consuming. Packed lunches are exempt from these regulations and are the best bet for parents to ensure their children are eating a wholesome meal. Talk with your child about the importance of a healthy diet and encourage them to avoid purchasing from the vending machine by providing ample snack options in their lunches.

What do you think of the new regulations?

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