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Three new rules that change what students can eat at school this year

Teresa Tanoos's picture
Changes to school meal programs will affect what students eat

American children spend an average of more than 20 hours in school each week, so they are also likely to consume much of their daily food intake there too.

Accordingly, state and federal health officials have made changes to help provide healthier foods in schools in an effort to nourish the brains and bodies of its students.

Since the Healthy, Hunger-Free Act of 2010 gave authority to states and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to implement five major reforms to school nutrition – including adding six cents of federal reimbursement to states per meal for the funding of nutritious lunches, as well as the ability to apply healthy nutrition standards for snacks – the first of those reforms, the updated School Breakfast Program, is now ready to kick off with the beginning of this school year.

Breakfast: The School Breakfast Program is designed to provide students a healthier breakfast, allowing them to get low-fat milk and appropriate portions for their
age. And, starting this year, 50 percent of the grains served at breakfast are required to come from whole grains – until next year, when 100 percent should be whole grains.

Last year, new school lunch rules restricted the number of calories in elementary school lunches to between 550 and 650. In middle school lunches, the caloric limit was between 600 and 700 – and high school lunches were limited to 750 to 850 calories per student.

These calorie restrictions were heavily criticized by parents and students, who complained that the lower calorie meals left them still feeling hungry. As a result, the USDA loosened the requirement to allow more flexibility to meat and grain servings in school cafeterias.

Last year also saw the removal of full-fat milk from school menus, and the addition of more whole grains, fruits and vegetables.

In the meantime, an increasing number of school districts are interested in providing free or low-cost lunches to schoolchildren, and more of them are also applying for additional funding to provide healthier meals.

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“The hope is that now that schools have had a year with the new standards, there will start to be more innovation and variety in the offerings,” said Jessica Donze Black, project director for The Pew Charitable Trusts Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project.

Snacks: It’s not just about meals like breakfast and lunch either. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Act of 2010 recognizes the availability of snacks in school cafeterias and vending machines, which also have the potential to counter any health benefits from the new school lunch rules.

The USDA therefore issued new requirements to provide healthier snacks by including more fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, whole grains and lean proteins in an effort to limit the amount of calories, sugar, fat and sodium in snacks available to schoolchildren. These snack limits also apply to all foods and beverages sold outside of the meals program on school campuses during the school day.

Specifically, snack foods must contain less than 200 calories per item. And beverages, including sodas and sports drinks sold in high schools, must contain no more than 60 calories per 12-ounce serving. Meanwhile, elementary and middle schools are only allowed to sell water, low-fat or fat-free milk, and 100% fruit or vegetable juice. Although these requirements are not expected to begin until next year, many schools are planning to start following them this fall.

Sunscreen: Another updated requirement has nothing to do with nutrition or hunger. It has to do with sunscreen and not allowing it in school, even during outdoor sports, unless you have a note from your doctor.

That’s crazy you may say, particularly given all the warnings about skin cancer from sun damage, but the reason for banning sunscreens in schools is because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers them over-the-counter medications (and most state laws, except for California and New York, require a doctor’s note from any child using an over-the-counter medicine at school).

Meanwhile, the American Medical Association (AMA) recently endorsed “the exemption of sunscreen from over-the-counter medication possession bans in schools” in an effort to persuade schools to encourage their state to change the law that prevents students from protecting their skin with sunscreen without a doctor’s note.

“Students shouldn’t need to get a note from their physician in order to protect themselves from sun damage while they are at school. Even just a few sunburns can increase a child’s risk of skin cancer later in life, and they should be able to apply and reapply sunscreen at school,” said AMA board member Dr. Alexander Ding in a statement.

SOURCES: 1. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), "Healthy, Hunger-Free Act of 2010" (last modified August 2, 2013). 2. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), "Questions & Answers on the Final Rule, “Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs," (August 7, 2013).