Smart Snacks in Schools: What's In & What's Out

Under the new “Smart Snacks in School” nutrition standards most foods sold in schools will have limited fat, calories, sugar and sodium

So long doughnuts, chips, and soda in school vending machines. Snacks in schools will look a lot different when kids head back to classrooms this year.

Under the new “Smart Snacks in School” nutrition standards, which took effect nationwide in July 2014, most foods sold in schools will have limited fat, calories, sugar and sodium.

It’s all part of the government’s effort to improve students’ eating habits and to make sure they don’t avoid nutritionally-balanced federal school meals by eating snacks sold in vending machines and snack bars.

"It's pretty common for kids to buy a few cookies and ice tea instead of getting an actual lunch," said James Walsh, 16, a junior at Linden High School in Linden, New Jersey. "It's a smart decision to try to regulate what's sold in vending machines, but kids can still get junk food at the corner store or bring it with them to school."

Snack foods sold in schools will have to be less than 200 calories, have less than 35 percent saturated fat, zero grams of trans fat and contain some sort of nutritional value instead of just empty calories, according to the guidelines.

They also have to be a “whole grain-rich” grain product or have as the first ingredient a fruit, a vegetable, a dairy product, or a protein food.

The new rules will help parents and schools raise healthy kids, Tom Vilsack, the former agriculture secretary, said last year in announcing the program.

Schools had a year to begin offering healthier standards for snacks, but many started offering more nutritious options earlier.

Thousands of schools had started offering better lunches and snacks as part of the HealthierUS School Challenge (HUSSC) and Healthy Schools Program of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, according to The Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project. Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, Kentucky, were among them.

"It doesn't make sense to focus on healthy breakfast and lunches if you're going to give students junk food," Julia Bauscher, director of school and community nutrition services at Jefferson County Public Schools said in 2013.

"What we've seen is that when junk food isn’t available, students have healthy breakfast instead," Bauscher added. "Most of us buy things that are in front of, so if we improve the variety of things in front of us it's easier to make healthier choices."

The new standards, introduced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in June 2013, are meant to help tackle childhood obesity in the United States, which affects about 17 percent of children and adolescents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A separate set of rules already applies to lunch meals.

The new snack rules are required under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act passed by Congress in 2010 with broad bipartisan support. The food industry and nutrition advocates worked very closely on drafting the snacks measure, which is the first nutritional overhaul of school snacks in 30 years.

Michelle Obama, who’s made it her mission to curb childhood obesity, had applauded the law.

"I am so excited that schools will now be offering healthier choices to students and reinforcing the work we do at home to help our kids stay healthy," the first lady said in a statement.

The increasingly restrictive standards have prompted some school systems to opt out of the National School Lunch Program, which means they don't have to implement the new snack program, the Chicago Tribune reported.

But many parents say the new standards are not strict enough. The new rules cover snacks sold only during regular school hours, so kids can still get junk food at sports game concessions and school clubs can still sell candy after or outside of school.

Karen Devitt, co-founder of Real Foods for Kids, a grass-roots, parent advocacy group promoting healthy foods in the Montgomery Country public schools, Maryland, said the guidelines are a step in the right direction but don’t go far enough.

The USDA guidelines permit artificially flavored milk in elementary and middle schools and caffeinated beverages in high schools. Parents like Devitt are against it. They are also concerned about artificial dyes and preservatives allowed in school foods, according to the The Washington Post.

Michele Simon, a consultant with the Center for Food Safety, said that permitting diet soda in schools was "an abomination."

"They are still focused on nutrients and grams of fat, and not grams of sugar," Simon said, according to msn news, explaining that under the new rules, flavored milk has a size limit but no sugar limit.

But upon seeing the more nutritional vending machine options, students took to social media to vent their none-too-pleased reactions, sharing photos of the chocolate candies and packaged cinnamon rolls they'll be missing.

Still, many parents appreciate the new rules. Mark Klabonski, 40, a father of two boys, 7 and 9 years old, said his house isn't free of junk food and the kids are allowed to have a few chips or a candy bar once in a while, so he appreciates schools trying to do their part as well.

"I really don't see a negative here," Klabonski, a data integration analyst from Metuchen, New Jersey, said of the new rules. "I'd imagine when they get older and have some money in their pocket they will want to buy snacks at school, so it's better to have healthier options available."

Take a look at examples of what type of snacks are out and what snacks are in:

Before the New Standards:

  • Chocolate Sandwich Cookies (5 medium)- 286 Total Calories; 182 Empty Calories
  • Fruit Flavored Candies( 2.2 oz. pkg.)- 249 Total Calories; 177 Empty Calories
  • Doughnut(1 large)- 241Total Calories; 147 Empty Calories
  • Chocolate Bar (1 bar-1.6 oz.)- 235 Total Calories; 112 Empty Calories
  • Regular Cola (12 fl. oz.)- 136 Total Calories; 126 Empty Calories

After the New Standards:

  • Peanuts (1 oz.)- 170 Total Calories, 0 Empty Calories
  • Light Popcorn (snack bag)- 161 Total Calories, 17 Empty Calories
  • Low-Fat Tortilla Chips (1 oz.)- 118 Total Calories, 0 Empty Calories
  • Granola Bars with oats, fruit, nuts (1 bar- 8 oz.)- 95 Total Calories, 32 Empty Calories
  • Fruit Cup with 100% juice (Snack cup 4 oz.)- 68 Total Calories, 0 Empty Calories
  • Non-Calorie Flavored Water- (12fl. oz.)- 0 Total Calories, 0 Empty Calories
Contact Us