Report: USDA Should Regulate In-School Snacks

Attempts to remove unhealthy snacks from schools could start a new controversy.

Danielle Davis, a Capital High school student with severe nut allergies, stands in front of a vending machine in Charleston, W.Va. Friday, April 24, 2008. Most vending machine offerings contain nuts, nut by-products or are processed in a facilty that uses nuts for other products.
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Earlier this year, new USDA regulations on school lunches stirred up a major controversy in Washington—including a debate about whether pizza could be considered a vegetable. Now, a new report suggests the USDA should begin regulating snacks offered in school vending machines and snack lines.

The report, issued Thursday by PEW Charitable Trust, says that high school students consume as many as 336 calories per day through snacks, and that few states offer healthy alternatives to candy, potato chips and soda. That's important considering the rise in childhood obesity over the past few decades, says Erik Olson, director of food programs at PEW. According to the USDA, reducing children's caloric intake by just 160 calories per day can have a huge impact on obesity.

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"That's the difference between eating an apple or eating a bag of chips a day," Olson says. "It doesn't take huge changes in their diet."

But any attempts to further regulate in-school food options is likely to have plenty of critics. Steve King, a Republican Congressman from Iowa, says it'd be "another overreach of the nanny state."

"I think Michelle Obama wants to be the Dietician-in-Chief. It's a gross overreach of the federal government to step in and ration food to kids," he adds. "None of these students get overweight on school lunches. The source of the problem is junk food at home and a lack of activity," he adds.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 required the USDA to update its school lunch guidelines and also contained provisions requiring the agency to update its guidelines for food sold outside of school lunch programs. The USDA updated its lunch guidelines earlier this year, but hasn't yet updated snack guidelines. According to a USDA spokesperson, the agency has "asked for additional time to review the proposed standards for competitive foods to ensure that we do what is right for kids in a way that is workable to the school districts that will be charged with implementation."

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In a June statement, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said that a snack rule would have to be "something that is doable, something that's workable, something that we can defend, and something that won't be successfully attacked."

In September, King and fellow Republican Congressman from Kansas, Tim Huelskamp, introduced the "No Hungry Kids Act," which would repeal the USDA rules regarding school lunch standards and prohibit upper caloric limits on school lunches. King says that students in his state have turned to snacks as a way to stave off hunger during the school day.

"If we don't get enough to eat, we grab something sweet till the next time we're getting a real meal," King says. "Students are grabbing for sweets in order to supplement that diet. The solution is to give students more of the healthy, nutritious food they need."

Olson takes issue with critics' assertions that schools aren't providing students enough food.

"Prior to the new guidelines, high schools were offering an average of 857 calories, the new limit is 850 calories," Olson says. "The big difference is that the calories are from healthier foods. We're not trying to get rid of snacks in schools, we're suggesting that they be healthier."

Huelskamp says he supports giving children healthier food, but in schools he's visited, students simply don't like some of the new options.

"You can't force kids to eat with a one size-fits-all approach. A fresh fruit or vegetable is great unless it ends up in the trash can," he says. "The USDA mandate didn't work on lunches and it wouldn't work on a snack mandate."

In August, the journal Pediatrics released a study that found states with stricter school snack laws had lower childhood obesity rates. According to the study, "laws that regulate competitive nutrition content may reduce adolescent BMI change if they are comprehensive, contain strong language, and are enacted across grade levels."