Smart Snacks: The Next Frontier in Making All School Foods Healthy

Posted by Jessica Donze Black on March 28, 2013

As a parent, I know firsthand that my kids love to eat salty and sugary snacks.  And if I allowed it, they would consume them all the time. My boys may like fruits and veggies, but they would be perfectly happy to choose their meals from the not-so-secret snack cupboard above the stove if they had the option. That’s why the “sometimes” foods are out of sight and out of reach.  At least until they learn to climb.

The truth is, as a parent and dietitian, I know that my job is to make sure I offer my kids healthy choices if I want them to make healthy choices. It sounds simple but it’s not easy to make sure kids eat a nutritious diet every day. And no matter what I do at home, it’s impossible if they have access to less-healthy options regularly at school.

That’s why I am happy that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently proposed updates to nutrition standards for school snacks.  This change is more than 30 years in the making – the last time they issued standards was 1979…when I was in the first grade.  Now that I have a first grader, I can tell you a lot has changed. More than 60 percent of elementary schools sell snack foods kids can buy, and more than 40 percent sell items like baked goods and chips that most would consider less than ideal daily fare for a six year old. 

School snacks support healthy meals

The updated guidelines mean that there will be healthier and more wholesome school snacks – and fewer sugary and salty options. The timing couldn’t be better. Just this fall, school lunches got an overhaul. Kids can now get lunches that are more balanced, with calories that come from healthier foods. However, until we address the snack food environment, it’s hard for those lunches to get a fair trial. A healthy lunch of grilled chicken and vegetables is all well and good until it’s abandoned for a candy bar and sugary drink. 

Strengthening smart school snack standards

Overall, the proposed rule for snack foods and beverages is solid and I strongly support USDA finalizing it as quickly as possible. The rule promotes naturally nutritious foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and non-fat and low-fat dairy products, while limiting calories, fat, sugar, and sodium. However, I encourage USDA to make the guidelines stronger in a few areas. For example:

  • Ensure that all foods meet these standards, including items sold a la carte in the cafeteria, regardless of whether they are sold as part of a regular school meal. We don't want loopholes to allow our kids to eat pizza and french fries every day.
  • Calorie requirements change as children grow. That's why I support a lower calorie limit on snacks sold in elementary schools, just as we already have for meals sold in elementary schools.
  • I agree that it is reasonable to offer some flexibility in beverage choices in high school, but I am also concerned that sugary drinks are far less healthy than other options. That means calorie limits on drinks other than milk and juice should be as close to zero as possible.

Parents support nutrition standards for school snacks

Not only do we know that strong nutrition standards for school snacks can help prevent students’ excessive weight gain, we also know that they’re what parents want. A national poll commissioned by the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project found that 80 percent of parents approve of national nutrition standards for snacks and beverages sold in schools. They specifically support national standards that favor fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy items over less-healthy choices.

As a mother of four, I not only want what is best for my children; I want what is best for all children. Strong national guidelines will help make sure that schools offer the same healthy foods that parents try to provide at home. If you agree, you can take action to help make sure all the choices kids have are healthy ones. With these updated standards, parents can rest assured that their children will be offered healthy snack options to keep them fueled and focused throughout the school day.

Registered dietitian Jessica Donze Black, a mother of four young children, directs the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project. Follow her on Twitter at @JDonzeBlack_Pew.

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