Don’t Let Them Eat Cake

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Grade school administrators, take note!  The USDA’s new nutrition standards for foods sold in grade schools are now effective for the 2014-15 school year. The standards apply to all schools that accept federal funding through the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs, including private schools.  What do these changes mean for your school?  The more stringent nutritional standards apply to both meals and other food consumption.  Consequently, schools may need to modify their food-provider contracts, fundraising activities, and vending machines practices.  These changes may particularly impact high schools, which previously operated under more lax legal restrictions than elementary schools. 

How extensive are the new restrictions?

The USDA’s new standards apply to all foods and beverages sold during the school day.  “School day” is defined as from midnight through 30 minutes after the end of official school hours.  The standards apply to food and beverages sold a la carte in the cafeteria, in school stores, at snack bars, in vending machines, and through fundraisers.  Items not available to students, such as those in faculty room vending machines, are not included.

What about food-related fundraising?

First, the new standards do not apply to evening or weekend functions or to fundraisers that take place off campus.  Accordingly, the sale of food and beverages at concession stands for sporting events, taking place outside of the school day, are unaffected.   Booster club fundraisers at local restaurants are thus unrestricted as well. 

Second, the USDA allows a certain number of fundraisers to occur on school grounds during the school day without having to meet the nutritional standards.  State agencies are to determine the limits on the number of such exempt fundraisers.  In Illinois, the current proposal is for a phased-in implementation of limits.  High schools would go from 36 exempt fundraisers this school year, to 18 next year, and then to 9 (one per month of the school year) by the 2018-2019 school year.  Elementary schools would go from 9 exempt fundraisers this year, down to zero by the 2016-17 school year. Notably, no exempt fundraiser foods or beverages may be sold in competition with school meals in the food service areas during the meal service.

The standards only apply to food both sold and consumed at school.  So schools can have fundraisers such as bake sales and candy bar sales, where the food is packaged for consumption off school grounds.  Schools should use signage and other enforcement tools to ensure that such packaged food is not consumed at school during the school day. 

What are the applicable nutritional standards?

The USDA has prepared standards for both food and beverages.  For food to be allowed under the standards, the food item must be one of the following:

  1. be a whole grain rich product (50% or more whole grains);
  2. have as the first ingredient a fruit, vegetable, dairy product, or protein food (such as meat, beans, poultry, etc.);
  3. be a “combination food” with at least ¼ cup fruit and/or vegetable (such as fruit with yogurt or hummus with vegetables); or
  4. contain 10% of the Daily Value of one nutrient of public health concern (calcium, potassium, vitamin D, or dietary fiber).

All food items must also meet very specific standards for the amount of fat, sodium, calories, and sugar the food contains.  (For a list of these standards, see the USDA publication “Smart Snacks in School.")  Fruits and vegetables are exempt from these “nutrient” standards.

As for drinks, all schools may provide plain water (whether carbonated or not), low fat unflavored milk, non-fat flavored or unflavored milk, and 100% fruit/vegetable juice.  The new standards, however, limit the sizes of these items, except for plain water, to 8 oz. for elementary schools and 12 oz. for middle school and high school.  Caffeine is prohibited in drinks sold in elementary and middle schools, but there is no such restriction for high schools.  High schools may also sell calorie-free beverages and “low-calorie” beverages in accordance with certain standards (see “Smart Snacks in School”).

What about compliance?

State agencies are responsible for monitoring compliance, through review of school-provided records.  If violations occur, so far no financial penalties will be imposed.  Rather, technical assistance and corrective action plans will be required.

How Can I Find Out More Information?

In connection with a school’s receipt of federal funding for food programs, it should have a designated “School Food Authority.”  That person should be fully knowledgeable about these about the new standards and how to maintain compliance.  Additional information is available through the Illinois State Board of Education’s website (www.isbe.state.il.us) and the USDA’s website (www.fns.usda.gov/school).