Last month Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced some very welcome and long awaited changes to the government subsidized school meals. These are the first changes made in the program -- which feeds 32 million kids each day – in 15 years. Under the new guidelines kids will be doubling their fruit and veggie intake, will be eating more whole grains, all milk will be low fat, and there’ll be upper limits to salt, trans-fat and calories in the school meal.
Yes, the program is far from perfect, kids will continue to eat lots of highly processed foods – very few schools actually cook food from scratch – and tomato paste on pizza counts as a vegetable. But it’s a laudable change in the right direction, and considering the mighty fight the food industry wages against any proposed change, and the fact that the new rules will add 3.2 billion to the yearly cost of the program it’s reason for a mini celebration.
The next critical change is yet to come
Competing with the subsidized school lunch are the foods sold in schools, which make a big part of what kids actually eat while they’re in school. These are foods and beverages sold in the cafeteria or in a school store, from a vending machine or in fundraising events. The lunch money parents give their kids may very well be spent on these offerings rather than on the school lunch.
Kids love the vending machines and the school stores, but that’s not the only reason these outlets exist. Schools depend on the revenues that vendors bring in to fund much-needed programs. This creates an unusual and worrying conflict of interest.
The USDA administers and regulates the school lunch program, and is developing nutrition guidelines for the foods and drinks available at schools. (The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, passed in 2010, gives the Agriculture Department authority to set health standards for all foods sold on school property — including those in vending machines). Right now, the only existing federal restriction is that foods of “minimal nutritional values”, such as candy and soda, won’t be sold in the cafeteria during meal times. That of course doesn’t mean they can’t be sold right outside the cafeteria doors.
A new study published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine showed that even in elementary school half of the students could buy potato chips, ice cream or similar snacks from vending machines and at snack bars during school.
Other studies show that a la carte foods sold in the cafeteria are common in all school levels. Vending machines are available in 87 percent of middle schools and virtually all high schools. Forty percent of kids consume competitive foods on any given day, eating 280 calories daily in mostly junk food (the most commonly consumed competitive foods are desserts, snacks and sweetened beverages.
The new age of vending
Getting rid of the vending machines is perhaps a fancy aspiration and a non-starter, especially during tight budget times.
Instead, states and schools have put in place policies guiding the nutritional content in schools’ vending machines, and now offer healthier vending options. Several vending companies specialize in healthy vending.
But the neatest idea I’ve seen yet is the LiVe vending machine Intermountain Healthcare installed at Rose Park Elementary School in Salt Lake City. The talking machine will make its rounds in Utah schools spending a few weeks at each.
I want one of these in my kids’ school!
Let’s hope the upcoming USDA regulations for competitive foods in schools will be sensible and have teeth.
Reposted as part of Food Renegade's Fight Back Fridays.