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U.S. Standards for School Snacks Move Beyond Cafeteria to Fight Obesity

The Agriculture Department on Thursday effectively banned the sale of snack foods like candy, cookies and sugary drinks, including sports drinks, in schools, making it harder for students to avoid the now-healthier school meals by eating snacks sold in vending machines.

 
Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

Commack High School in Commack, N.Y. New nutrition rules would cover food sold in vending machines and snack bars.

“Parents and schools work hard to give our youngsters the opportunity to grow up healthy and strong, and providing healthy options through school cafeterias, vending machines and snack bars will support their great efforts,” Tom Vilsack, the agriculture secretary, said in a statement.

The new rules were required under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which was passed by Congress in 2010 with broad bipartisan support. The law, supported by Michelle Obama and drafted with an unusual level of cooperation between nutrition advocates and the food industry, required the Agriculture Department to set nutritional standards for all foods sold in schools.

The department had previously set the standards for fats, sugars and sodium in meals prepared in schools, and the new rules bring other foods under similar standards. When schools open in the fall of 2014, vending machines will have to be stocked with things like whole wheat crackers, granola bars and dried fruits, instead of M&Ms, Cheese Nips and gummy bears.

“By teaching and modeling healthy eating habits to children in school, these rules will encourage better eating habits over a lifetime,” said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which worked on the legislation. “They mean we aren’t teaching nutrition in the classroom and then undercutting what we’re teaching when kids eat in the cafeteria or buy food from the school vending machines.”

Health advocates are taking the same approach to curb the consumption of fatty, sugary and salty foods that they did to reduce smoking: educating children in the hopes that they will grow up healthier and perhaps pass along healthy eating behavior to their parents.

Ms. Wootan said she was pleased that the rules would prevent the sale of sugary sports drinks like Gatorade in high schools. The drinks have already been withdrawn from elementary and middle schools, but Ms. Wootan said teenagers mistakenly think such drinks are healthier than sodas. “All they are is a sugary drink with added salt,” she said.

Some Republicans were critical of the new rules. Representative Lee Terry, a Republican from Nebraska, tweeted his opposition using the hashtag “nannystate” and writing “RIP tater tots.” Schools could probably sell Tater Tots, a hash-brown potato nugget made by Ore-Ida, if they were baked instead of fried.

Schools and big food and beverage companies have been trying to improve the nutritional quality of food sold in educational institutions for some time. The American Beverage Association, which lobbies on behalf of the beverage makers, noted that its members had already reduced the calories in drinks that are shipped to schools by 90 percent.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents big food companies, applauded the new rules, though it said it would continue to encourage the Agriculture Department to phase them in gradually.

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