Soon, students across the country will notice their school snacks have lightened up. Vending machines and à la carte snacks will feature items that are lower in fat, sugar, and sodium and higher in the nutrients kids need. Fruit cups will replace fruit flavored candies, healthy granola bars will knock donuts off the shelf and no-calorie flavored water will beat out regular soda in vending machines.
In June 2013, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released the new “Smart Snacks in School” standards, as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) of 2010. The HHFKA requires USDA to establish nutrition standards for all foods sold in schools – including snacks sold à la carte, in school stores, snack bars and vending machines. The “Smart Snacks in School” standards will allow schools to offer healthier snack foods to children, while limiting junk food.
“Before the new USDA guidelines, school snacks consisted of anything from cookies to chocolate bars. Now kids will be able to grab healthier snacks like whole grain popcorn or heart-healthy peanuts,” explains Karen Ansel, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
The new snack standards were designed to help combat child hunger, obesity and improve the health and nutrition of the nation’s children. This is particularly good news for the more than 25 percent of African-American children in the US who are overweight or obese. Additionally, because they aren’t meeting the recommended servings of fruit, vegetables, whole grains or dairy, their intake of key nutrients is at suboptimal levels.
“I applaud the ‘Smart Snacks’ initiative,” say’s registered dietitian Marisa Moore. “It’s a definite step in the right direction. It makes the healthy choice, the easy choice, tackling a major barrier in the African American community – access to healthful food options.”
Smart snacking can have a major impact on children’s nutritional well being.
“With more nutrients like fiber, protein and healthy fats, which will help keep kids satisfied, they can learn better in the classroom and work harder on the playing field,” says Ansel. That’s especially true for African-American children – the quality of school snacks is critical to curbing childhood obesity and hunger.
New Smart Snack Standards
Under the new “Smart Snacks in School” standards, all snacks must be a fruit, vegetable, dairy product, protein-based food, whole-grain rich, or a combination food that contains at least a quarter cup of fruits or vegetables. Or, the snack must contain 10% of the daily value of one of the nutrients cited as a public health concern in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, such as calcium, potassium, vitamin D or fiber.
Snacks must also have no more than 200 calories, with a total fat content of 8 grams or less, while saturated fat must be less than 2 grams with zero grams trans fat. Sodium is limited to less than 230 mg per snack. There are exemptions for reduced fat cheese, nuts and nut butters without other ingredients and seafood with no added fat.
For total sugar levels the standards offer two alternatives – less than 35% of calories or less than 35% of weight. Fruits and vegetables packed in juice or extra-light syrup and certain fruit yogurts are exempt from these standards.
Beverages are limited to plain water (carbonated or non-carbonated), low-fat milk (unflavored) and nonfat milk (including flavored), nutritionally-equivalent milk alternatives such as lactose-free milk or soy milk (as permitted by the school meal requirements), and full strength fruit and vegetable juices or full strength fruit and vegetable juice diluted with water or carbonated water. The guidelines allow variation of portion size and caffeine content by age group.
The new “Smart Snacks in School” standards must be implemented by fall 2014.
Choose Sensibly New York
Through its “Choose Sensibly” campaign, the New York School Nutrition Association has taken a proactive approach to providing students in New York schools with guidelines for healthier snack options. To meet the “Choose Sensibly” guidelines snacks must contain 7 grams or less of fat, 2 grams or less of saturated fat, 0 grams of trans fat, 15 grams or less of sugar, 360 milligrams or less of sodium and have one serving per package.
Beverages are limited to 25 percent or more real juice in juice drinks, water or flavored waters without added sugar, artificial sweeteners or caffeine, low-fat milk and low-fat flavored milk and beverages must have no more than 10 milligrams of caffeine per serving.
“We have been serving a vast variety of fruits and vegetables and whole grains in our school meals program for years,” says Deborah Beauvais, registered dietitian, district supervisor of school nutrition in Rochester, New York. “In addition we follow the New York School Nutrition Association’s ‘Choose Sensibly’ guidelines for those foods offered to students in our à la carte program and in our vending machines.”
Beauvais is confident that her schools will have no problem moving forward with the “Smart Snacks in School” standards. In fact at the Gates Chili Elementary Schools in her district they already have the distinction of being a Healthier U.S. Challenge School at the Bronze level for meeting most of the “Choose Sensibly” guidelines for their à la carte menu.
Constance Brown-Riggs, MSEd, RD is an award winning registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator, and national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She is the author of The African American Guide To Living Well With Diabetes and Eating Soulfully and Healthfully with Diabetes. Follow Brown-Riggs on twitter @eatingsoulfully.