Big Changes Coming to School Vending Machines

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently finalized its updated nutrition standards for snacks and beverages sold in schools through vending machines, school stores, a la carte, snack bars, and on-campus fundraisers.  Combined with the recent improvements in school lunches, at long last, all foods and beverages sold in schools will soon need to meet healthy nutrition standards.

These updates are the result of decades’ worth of work by parents, advocates (including CSPI), and policymakers, and were required as part of the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, a landmark piece of legislation that represents one of the biggest steps forward in our nation’s effort to provide children with healthier foods in schools.

National standards for snacks and beverages sold in schools hadn’t been updated since the 1970s, yet studies show that unhealthy school foods can undermine children’s diets and contribute to weight problems. Considering the fact that kids now consume up to half of their daily calories at school, it’s more important than ever that school foods be good for kids. Even so, many school vending machines are still stocked with snack cakes, cookies, potato chips, and sugary drinks.

While there has been some progress over the last decade as a result of state and local policies and voluntary industry efforts, there are still far too many unhealthy foods and beverages available in schools.

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In fact, nearly 70 percent of students drink at least one sugary beverage (like a sports drink or fruit punch) at school every day. This is significant considering that the entire childhood obesity epidemic can be explained by an excess of 110 to 165 calories per day.

The current national standards for snacks and beverages sold in schools only limit some sugary foods, like hard candy and ice pops. USDA’s updated nutrition standards include strong criteria for calories, fats, sugars, and sodium for food, and they only allow water, low-fat milk, and 100 percent juice in elementary and middle schools, as well as some lower-calorie beverages (like diet drinks and low-calorie sports drinks) in high schools.

Also, importantly, after a phase-in period, companies won’t be able to just fortify snacks with cheap nutrients to qualify them as healthy.  All school foods will have to contain real food―some fruit, vegetables, whole grains, or another healthy food component.

Some have voiced concern that switching to healthier snack foods and beverages will result in a loss of revenue for schools; however, many school districts across the country are finding that students will purchase and eat healthier snacks and beverages.

In addition, lots of studies have found that while sometimes schools may see an initial drop in revenue, sales rebound once schools figure out the right mix of products to sell and students adjust to the healthier options.  For example, according to one CSPI study, sugary sports drinks and other mid-calorie beverages (which will be removed from schools as a result of the new standards) generate only $0.74 per student per year in school revenue and could easily be replaced by sales of lower-calorie drinks.

While some may prefer to see all convenience food removed from schools, this shift promises to be a key milestone in improving school nutrition environments across the country. Of course, that doesn’t mean there’s not work to do to ensure the standards become a reality.  The new standards will go into effect beginning with the 2014-2015 school year and schools will need support from school administrators, teachers, PTA members, the food industry, community members, parents, and—yes—students.

CSPI, a health advocacy organization that specializes in food, nutrition, and obesity prevention, coordinated efforts to pass the Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act of 2010, including the law to set national nutrition standards for foods sold through vending machines, a la carte, school stores, and fundraisers at schools.

Photo credit: Shutterstock.

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