School-age children looking to supplement their brown bag or hot lunch with a candy bar or sugary drink will no longer be able to find these items in their school vending machines. Instead, students will have healthier options to choose from, such as baked chips, granola bars, and flavored waters. 

This change is due to the Smart Snacks in School guideline that was finalized by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in June 2013. Schools must comply with
the Smart Snacks in School initiative by July 1, 2014.

Why the Change?

The new rules are being implemented as part of ongoing efforts to end childhood obesity and help children to develop healthier eating habits. Childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years. In 2012, more than one-third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese. 

The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 set a deadline for the USDA to revamp the guidelines for what snack foods could be sold in schools. Prior to this initiative, the policies had not been changed in more than 30 years.

Smart Snacks in School initiative affects “competitive foods,” foods that compete with the lunch program. These are snacks sold in vending machines,
a la carte lunch lines, and in student stores. This program will be implemented in the 100,000+ elementary, middle, and high schools that accept assistance from the National School Lunch Program

Smart Snack Standards

The new rules are targeted to change school nutrition by setting limits on calories, fats, sugars, and sodium of the items sold, while encouraging the consumption of dairy, whole grains, proteins, fruits, and vegetables. 

“The guidelines are certainly a step in the right direction that can help improve both the awareness of healthier foods, as well as the consumption of healthier foods by making them the priority in snacks and at lunchtime,” says David G. Scott, MS, NASM-PES, coordinator of pediatric exercise physiology at The Goryeb Kid-FIT Program at Morristown Medical Center. Scott continues, “I think all of these guidelines will help control the portion sizes of unhealthy foods and push children towards adding more healthier choices in order to make up their lunch selection while not adding ‘empty’ calories, sugar, or sodium.”

The new rules do not affect what snacks children can bring from home. Classroom celebrations for birthdays or holidays are also not affected by these new guidelines (although individual schools may have policies about what can be brought in). Food-based fundraisers, such as bake sales, will still be allowed, as will the sale of non-compliance food items at after school sporting events. 

Supporting Nutrition at Home

Experts hope that these changes will reduce the long-term health risks associated with unhealthy eating, including weight-management issues, diabetes, and high blood pressure. But offering healthier food options at school is only part of the solution. Scott says, “Consistency is the key to teaching children to make the correct food choices when they are at school or home.”

For the guidelines implemented in school to really make a difference, these healthier habits must also be supported in the home. According to Scott, “Educating parents is a key part to improving the long term health of our children.” 

4 Tips to encourage healthy eating at home

Don’t ban any foods No foods are “bad.” Teach and embrace moderation. 

Technology can help Free smart-phone apps, such as Fooducate, provide families with grading of good items by just scanning the bar code on the product. 

Don’t give up on any fruits and vegetables too quickly It takes multiple exposures for the brain to decide whether or not it likes a new food. 

Walk the walk If parents want their child to make healthy food choices, they need to do the same.

Randi Mazzella, a mother of three, is a freelance writer from Short Hills.