The U.S. Department of Agriculture is expected to unveil proposed nutritional guidelines for school snacks and drinks soon, the White House’s Senior Policy Adviser for Healthy Food Initiatives said last week, although Chef Sam Kass didn’t specify a timeline for the release.
During a panel discussion about new nutritional guidelines for school meals, Kass said that the USDA is working hard to finalize standards for competitive foods, which are defined as food and beverages sold outside meals. Advocates for and against the rules expected the agency to release its recommendations this spring, but so far there’s been no movement. Kass noted that crafting these guidelines is especially challenging because unlike school meals, there are no current nutritional standards for competitive foods. That means USDA officials have to start from scratch.
“They don’t have any precedent to build off of,” Kass said. “They are working very hard at it, and hopefully will be releasing it soon. But it’s critical we get this right.”
Kass joined USDA Food and Nutrition Service Administrator Audrey Rowe and National PTA President Betsy Landers at the event, which was sponsored by our friends at the Kids’ Safe & Healthful Foods Project (KSHF) and aired live online via a webcast.
Event moderator Jessica Donze Black, KSHF’s executive director, noted that her organization has studied schools who already have implemented nutritional guidelines for school snacks and drinks, finding such standards can have a “positive impact on children’s health.”
Kass said the agency is working hard to balance the need to set healthy guidelines for competitive foods with the concern that many schools would lose valuable revenue streams from vending machines and student stores. Donze Black noted that KSHF found that when schools remove unhealthy foods, students do indeed buy the healthier options — providing a win-win for kids and schools.
When the proposal is eventually released, the USDA will hold an open comment period so the public can send in their thoughts, Rowe said.
“It’s coming, and when we look back in a few years once these rules are implemented, we’re going to be very proud,” Kass said.
While the USDA works on crafting standards for school snacks, the agency is also overseeing a massive effort to implement new nutritional guidelines for school meals. The guidelines require school meals to include more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and less unhealthy ingredients such as salt and sugar. Although they have been largely well-received there have been some worries, including concerns that young people simply won’t eat healthier food. The KSHF webcast was designed to address those worries.
Kass said the key to getting reluctant kids to eat healthier food is to engage them, whether it is through nutritional education, taste testing in the cafeteria, or even the planting of a school garden. The White House garden has shown the success of such engagement, Kass said.
“I’ve seen a 10-year-old girl devour raw cauliflower in the garden with nothing on it, and had no idea what it was, but she had planted it, and she had cut it up, and that was enough,” Kass said. “I’m not even a big fan of raw cauliflower. Cauliflower’s good, but raw? Without a dip? It was amazing.”
Parents also can encourage their kids to eat healthy by bringing them into the kitchen to help prepare healthy meals, speakers said.
“This is a partnership,” the USDA’s Rowe said. “The work that we are doing in the schools is to partner with you to do the work you are doing.”
Speakers also addressed concerns that kids might not get enough to eat with the new standards, as portion sizes are regulated. The speakers noted the new portions are backed by scientific guidelines for caloric limits. Plus, there are no limits on how many fruits and vegetables kids can eat, speakers said.
Kass called the new guidelines “historic,” noting that they are the most important nutritional program implemented by the government in years, if not decades. The new standards are the key to creating a healthier future for the country, he added.
“Right now is the hard part,” Kass said. “We’re really seeing tremendous progress in such a short amount of time. It’s thrilling.”
Landers urged parents to work with their school administrators and cafeteria workers to help ensure the guidelines are properly implemented and promoted in a positive way to students. The PTA has a long history of working alongside schools to promote healthy food, she noted, including sponsoring a hot lunch program from 1912 until 1946, when the national school lunch program began.
These new standards are another step forward in helping kids lead healthy lives, she said. “If we’re going to help them learn to make healthy choices, we have to start by providing them with healthy choices,” Landers added.
Speakers agreed that for kids to eat healthy food, the food has to be tasty. Fortunately, all three reported that schools are finding success in crafting meals that are delicious and nutritious.
For example, Rowe recalled she dined on Pattypan Squash in a school cafeteria in Texas a few weeks back. “It was so good, I went back and asked the school chef for the recipe,” Rowe said.
The webcast will be available to view in its entirety for the next several weeks.