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USDA’s new school snack-food standards: healthy eating vs. nannystate

As of fall of 2014, high-sugar foods will be banned from school vending machines.

Students across the country will face fewer junk-food temptations in their schools, thanks to new nutrition standards released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The standards, which will go into effect in the fall of 2014, encourage the sale of fruits, vegetables, lean meats, whole-grains and low-fat dairy products. They ban foods high in fat, sugar and sodium.

So, goodbye to deep-fried French fries, chocolate chip cookies, ice cream, and sugary “juice” drinks. And hello to baked French fries, fruit cups, low-fat yogurt and 100 percent fruit juices.

“Nothing is more important than the health and well-being of our children,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a press statement. “Parents and schools work hard to give our youngsters the opportunity to grow up healthy and strong, and providing healthy options throughout school cafeterias, vending machines, and snack bars will support their great efforts.”

A weighty problem

More than one-third of America’s school children are overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That excess weight puts them at increased risk for a variety of health problems, including high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, depression and sleep disorders.

Many children consume up to half their calories at school, and half of secondary-school students eat at least one snack food (totaling an average of 273-336 calories) at school each day, notes a 2012 report by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

“Even small changes to students’ school-based diets — like replacing a candy bar with an apple — may reduce their risk of tooth decay, obesity, and chronic illness through decreased calorie, fat, and sugar intake,” that report concluded.

(There are some outliers among the studies that have investigated in-school access to junk food and children’s weight. A 2012 study, for example, found that such access did not affect the weight of middle-school students — a finding that surprised the Pennsylvania State University researchers who conducted the research.)

Several exemptions

The USDA’s new “Smart Snacks in School” standards are the direct result of the “Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010,” which requires the USDA to create nutrition standards for all foods sold in schools. More healthful standards for the subsidized meals sold in schools were implemented last fall. The standards announced on Thursday apply to foods and drinks sold in school vending machines and in the “a la carte” line of school cafeterias.

The snack food standards do not affect foods brought from home either for individual student lunches or for classroom parties. Nor do they affect foods sold at bake sales or other school fundraisers or at after-school sporting, theater or other events.

Charges of ‘nanny state’

Many conservative politicians and pundits criticized the removal of unhealthful foods from school lunches last fall. They claimed that such efforts were another example of the government’s misguided efforts to establish “a nanny state.”

The new snack-food standards are likely to elicit similar comments. Indeed, the New York Times reports that Rep. Lee Terry, a Republican from Nebraska, tweeted his opposition to the standards Thursday, using the hashtag “nannystate” and writing “RIP tater tots.”

You can find details about the new standards on the USDA website.

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