On February 1, 2013, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced the long-anticipated proposed rule on competitive foods in schools, now known as Smart Snacks in Schools. Published in the Federal Register on February 8th, the rule is now open for a mandatory 60-day public comment period, which closes on April 9, 2013. The overall reaction has been positive, although many folks are probably still trying to digest the details of the 160-page document.
If your schedule does not permit a long read, several good summaries are available online. There is a very readable Q-and-A format in USDA Summary, excellent materials from a webinar by USDA and Food Research Action Center (FRAC), and the School Nutrition Association page with links and member-only comment section. The more you read, the more you’ll know. What follows is my personal, big picture reaction to the proposal and what it will really mean in local schools.
THE GOOD NEWS
There’s lots of good news in the proposed rule, starting with more fruits, veggies, low-fat dairy foods, whole grains, and lean proteins. Anyone who cares about kids’ health knows that there is still plenty of room for improvement in the options that kids have outside of school meals covered by USDA’s 2012 Nutrition Standards. Other positive aspects of Smart Snacks in Schools:
- USDA proposed an extended implementation timeline and invited comments on several options rather than outlining a single course of action.
- Based on experience with existing standards, especially the 5,000+ HealthierUS School Challenge (HUSSC) winners and Alliance for a Healthier Generation (AHG) districts, the proposed rule is realistic and can benefit kids’ health.
THE REALITY CHECK
While Smart Snacks in Schools represents another significant step toward creating healthy school nutrition environments, it’s also important to note what it does not do. It does not cover foods brought from home, foods for classroom parties or any foods sold after regular school hours (athletic events, after-school fundraisers, etc.).
- In fact, most of the effect from this rule will be seen in cafeteria a la carte lines, as well as on some vending and fundraisers held during school hours.
- Compliance and monitoring will an issue outside of cafeterias; school nutrition programs know how to do the required record keeping, but it is not clear who can – or even wants to – be effective as “food police” in the wider school campus.
OUR HOMEWORK ASSIGNMENTS
Last October, after the 2012 Nutrition Standards for School Lunch went into effect, Jane Brody wrote “There’s Homework to Do on School Lunches” in the New York Times. Her basic premise was that the federal regulations and standards are just the beginning – and that homes and schools also have work at improving how children eat. I believe the same is true for this issue.
To build strong bodies and smart brains, children also need smart snacks at home, smart snacks brought from home to school, and smart snacks served in concession stands at sporting events. A healthy school nutrition environment will take more than new regulations – it will require a culture of wellness. To create that culture will require us all to do some additional homework: Making comments on the proposed rule at eRulemaking Portal (on or before April 9, 2013) is a good first step. (Select Food and Nutrition Services from the agency drop-down menu and, in the docket ID column of the search results, select FNS-2011-0019.)
If we care about smart snacks at school, here’s what I believe we all need to do:
- Support a culture of wellness in your local district, for example, by serving a School Health Advisory Council (SHAC) or helping with a HUSSC application.
- Use smart strategies to inspire, motivate and educate everyone in schools about smart snacks for reasons they care about, because not everyone is focused on childhood obesity:
- Make smart snacks about fun and great taste for kids.
- Make smart snacks about fitness and sports success for coaches, athletes and boosters clubs.
- Make smart snacks about learning and behavior for classroom teachers and administrators.
- Make smart snacks about successful fundraisers that make money for clubs and organizations.
- Make smart snacks the cool thing to do at school rather than something that the government is making us do!!