Friday, 1 February 2013

Competitive foods in schools: new developments from CDC and FNS

The "competitive foods" served in vending machines and snack bars outside of the federal school meals programs strongly affect both the economic viability of these programs and healthfulness of the nutrition environment for U.S. children.

It is widely thought that competitive foods are necessary for child nutrition programs to succeed economically, but I am not so sure.  In an article in Choices Magazine a couple years ago, a student and I discussed how competitive foods look from the perspective of a school nutrition director who is trying to break even across multiple lines of business:
Any successful business must understand the economic interactions across its product lines, but these interactions are particularly intense for a school food service. A child who consumes a reimbursable lunch and breakfast will have lower demand for a la carte items, while a child who skips a real meal may be hungrier for a snack. This interaction means that school food service decisions about competitive foods strongly affect the federal school meals program, and vice versa.
I suspect that having strong rules to rein in competitive foods may actually strengthen the hand of school food service directors who want to make a healthy meals program economically sustainable.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently posted a new report (.pdf) summarizing state policies regarding "competitive foods" outside of the federal school meals programs.  One nice surprise is the states that appeared to have the strongest rules.  Hawaii and West Virginia were ranked by the CDC in the "third quartile" of adherence to nutrition policy standards; no states ranked in the "fourth quartile."  (I'll ask my statistics class this week whether there might have been a better word than "quartile" for this particular ranking method).

The CDC website has all sorts of great resources for people who want to get involved in encouraging good policies in their own states and communities.

Today, USDA's Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) announced proposed regulations for competitive foods in vending machines and snack bars.  Highlights, according to the FNS summary, include:
  • More of the foods we should encourage.  Promoting availability of healthy snack foods with whole grains, low fat dairy, fruits, vegetables or protein foods as their main ingredients.
  • Less of the foods we should avoid.  Ensuring that snack food items are lower in fat, sugar, and sodium and provide more of the nutrients kids need.
  • Targeted standards.  Allowing variation by age group for factors such as beverage portion size and caffeine content.
  • Flexibility for important traditions.  Preserving the ability for parents to send in bagged lunches of their choosing or treats for activities such as birthday parties, holidays, and other celebrations; and allowing schools to continue traditions like occasional fundraisers and bake sales.
  • Reasonable limitations on when and where the standards apply.  Ensuring that standards only affect foods that are sold on school campus during the school day.  Foods sold at an afterschool sporting event or other activity will not be subject to these requirements.
  • Flexibility for state and local communities.  Allowing significant local and regional autonomy by only establishing minimum requirements for schools. States and schools that have stronger standards than what is being proposed will be able to maintain their own policies.
  • Significant transition period for schools and industry.  The standards will not go into effect until at least one full school year after public comment is considered and an implementing rule is published to ensure that schools and vendors have adequate time to adapt.
The proposed regulations will be open to public comment for 60 days.  I look forward to reading them, but also will be glad for your suggestions about which sections seem most interesting.

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