USDA Rules Ban Junk Food in Schools

Gone are the days when heading to school meant ditching your sack lunch and opting for a bag of chips and a candy bar from a vending machine instead. Starting July 1, schools in the U.S. will no longer be able to sell unhealthy food in cafeterias or vending machines, or at school-sponsored events like bake sales and fundraisers.

This move toward a healthier eating environment in schools follows a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) mandate to replace unhealthy food and drink options with more nutritious options for kids and teens.

Nearly 17 million U.S. children between the ages of 2 and 19 are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Proponents of the mandate—including First Lady Michelle Obama—say now is the time for stricter school meal regulations. 

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The Smart Snacks in Schools program sets limits on calories, fats, sugar, and sodium and promotes the consumption of dairy, whole grains, protein, and produce. Instead of sodas, there are low-calorie, low-caffeine options, and after this summer’s deadline, beverage choices will largely consist of water, low- or non-fat milk, and 100 percent fruit and vegetable juices.

A revamped school meal program has been in the works for more than a year. In July 2013, the USDA published its interim Smart Snacks in Schools rules, which set the stage for the upcoming July 2014 change. These rules apply to the more than 100,000 elementary, middle, and high schools that receive aid from the National School Lunch program.

“Competitive foods”—including snacks that are sold in vending machines, as a la carte items in the cafeteria, in student lounges and stores, and at bake sales and fundraisers—are subject to the new rules. 

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New Nutrition Guidelines

What exactly do these Smart Snacks standards dictate? Snacks must be produce, dairy, lean-protein, or whole-grain products, or a “combo-food” that contains at least a quarter-cup of produce. To qualify as a snack or a side, the food must contain 200 calories or less; the limit for entrees is 350 calories.

Sugar and fat will also be curtailed. Items sold on school property can’t contain more than 35 percent sugar by weight or get more than 35 percent of their calories from fat (or more than 10 percent of their calories from saturated fat), and no items can contain trans fat.

The healthier beverages will also have size limits. In elementary schools, the maximum drink size is 8 ounces; in middle and high schools, the maximum is 12 ounces. High school students get a bit of break when it comes to caffeine, but elementary and middle school drinks must be free of caffeine, except for traces of naturally occurring caffeine.

The USDA’s website explains the guidelines in full.

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Lunch Box Effect

The new regulations don’t apply to the foods that students bring from home. However, if you’re looking to send your children off to school with a healthy, nutritious lunch and snacks, following the regulations set by the Smart Snacks in Schools program is a good place to start.

The USDA's Choose My Plate website is a great resource for parents and kids who want to learn more about healthy eating.

Get 7 Nutritious and Delicious Breakfast and Lunch Recipes That Are Great for Kids! »