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Federal snack guidelines would mean more changes for Wichita schools

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Monday, Feb. 4, 2013, at 9:44 a.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013, at 5:32 a.m.

No more candy bars at the school store?

No more pizza by the slice or sugary sodas at lunchtime fundraisers?

No more ice cream bars or baked potato chips in the a la carte line?

Wichita school officials aren’t sure exactly how or when proposed nutritional guidelines for snack foods will affect food offerings at local schools, but they are preparing for another round of changes aimed at curbing childhood obesity.

“I would expect we’ll be doing a lot of label reading,” trying to find snack products that meet proposed requirements, said Vicki Hoffman, director of nutrition services for the Wichita district.

“We will have some time, but this … could be a big change.”

The Obama administration last week released its long-awaited nutritional guidelines for snack foods sold in schools, an effort to combat the expanding waistlines of school-age children.

The guidelines come a year after the administration made the first changes to the $11 billion government-subsidized school meal program in more than three decades, adding more fruits and green vegetables to breakfasts and lunches and reducing the amount of salt and fat in meals.

The proposed guidelines, which set minimum requirements for calories and fats allowed, encourage schools to offer low-fat and whole-grain snack foods or fruits and limit the availability of sugary drinks.

They leave room for parents to send treats to school for activities such as birthdays and holiday parties and also will allow schools to sell sweets during “occasional” fundraisers and at after-school sporting events.

The public will have 60 days to comment on the rules before they are finalized. After that, schools will have a transition period of at least one full school year to implement the new requirements.

‘Big switch’

In Wichita, schools have spent the past several years changing breakfast and lunch menus, portion sizes and a la carte items to meet federal nutrition requirements. They have switched vending machine offerings and timed some machines to work only after school to meet state requirements.

This latest round of guidelines would mean changes to places away from the lunchroom and beyond the federally supported school meals program, such as school stores and snack bars.

“That one will be a pretty big switch for a lot of schools,” Hoffman said. “They will have to meet the same requirements, and … right now school stores don’t have any restrictions.”

Hoffman said she didn’t know whether the proposed restrictions would do away with lunchtime fundraisers. At some Wichita high schools, groups sell pizza or other foods during lunch – sometimes once a month or more – to raise money for Project Graduation and other activities.

Groups such as bands and orchestras often sell candy at school to raise money for uniforms or trips.

“It all depends how they end up defining ‘occasional fundraisers,’ ” Hoffman said. “With a lot of this, we won’t know the details until the final rules are written.”

The “Smart Snacks in School” proposal, which draws on recommendations from the Institute of Medicine, is the first step in the process to create national snack standards. Some highlights of the proposal:

• Schools should promote healthy snack foods with whole grains, low-fat dairy, fruits, vegetables or protein foods as their main ingredients.

• Snack foods sold in schools should be lower in fat, sugar and sodium and provide more of the nutrients kids need.

• Standards will vary by age group for factors such as beverage portion size and caffeine content.

• Parents can continue to send bagged lunches or treats for activities such as birthday parties, holidays and other celebrations.

• The standards only affect foods sold on school campus during the school day. Foods sold at after-school sporting events or other activities would not be subject to the requirements.

The rules are a major component of Michelle Obama’s campaign to reduce the number of overweight children through exercise and better nutrition. A study by the National Academy of Sciences estimates that about $2.3 billion worth of snack foods and beverages are sold annually in schools nationwide.

New rules attacked

Efforts to restrict the food that schoolchildren eat outside the lunchroom had met resistance from some schools and the snack-food industry.

On Monday, Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, an outspoken critic of the recent school-lunch changes, attacked the new snack rules as well.

“Nutrition Nannies strike again,” Huelskamp said in a written statement.

“At least there is a policy argument that perhaps the federal government may regulate what goes on school lunch trays because they subsidize those lunches,” he said. “But the last time I checked, Uncle Sam is not handing out allowance money for kids to spend on snacks.”

Representatives from the snack-food and beverage industry said last week they generally agreed with the guidelines.

“We anticipated that there would be significant changes to the way snack foods are sold in schools and this is pretty much what we expected,” said James McCarthy, president of the Snack Food Association in Arlington, Va. “The rules allows some flexibility on snack foods.”

Nutrition experts called the rules an important step in ensuring that all foods, including snacks, meet some minimum nutritional standards. The experts said school vending machines stocked with potato chips, cookies and sugary soft drinks have contributed to the childhood obesity rate, which has more than tripled in the past 30 years.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about one in every five children is obese.

Contributing: New York Times News Service

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or stobias@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @SuzanneTobias.

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