Beginning this fall, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's snack food and beverage standards will go into effect that will allow schools to offer healthier snack foods, while limiting junk food served to students. Students will still be able to buy snacks that meet common sense standards for fat, saturated fat, sugar, and sodium. Schools will promote products that have whole grains, low fat dairy, fruits, vegetables or protein foods as their main ingredients, according to the USDA.

Meeting these standards will be a challenge and a recent study in Childhood Obesity looked at whether existing state laws met these new requirements, and how this might help with compliance.

Researchers found that 38 states had snack food and beverage standards; 33 states' laws exceeded restrictions on foods of minimal nutritional value. Of the 33 states, no states' laws fully met the USDA's standards, 16 states' laws fully met and 10 states' laws partially met at least one USDA provision, and seven states' laws met no USDA provisions. One state's law met 9 of 18 provisions. On average, states met 4 of 18 provisions. States were more likely to meet individual USDA beverage than snack provisions

Where do Pennsylvania laws currently stand? The state Department of Education developed nutrition standards, which are only required of districts who want to receive an additional monetary supplement, said author Jamie Chriqui, PhD, MHS, Director of Policy Surveillance and Evaluation for the Bridging the Gap Program at Institute for Health Research and Policy, University of Illinois at Chicago

"Given that context, we did give the state credit for addressing 14 of the 18 provisions that we examined for the USDA analysis based on what was included in the attached standards. Since the standards are only required of districts seeking the additional incentive, we did not consider them fully required," Chriqui said

So how does the Philadelphia School District do? Co-author Betsy Piekarz, JD, a research specialist in the Institute for Health Research and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, took a closer look and found Philadelphia's policy mirrors many states. The district has really strong beverage standards and has some requirements in place on the food-side, but it doesn't yet meet USDA standards.

To tell us more about changes in the district, we talked to Amy Virus, MS, RD, LDN, the district's manager of administrative and support services in the division of food services.

What were some of the biggest changes the district had to make to fit the guidelines?

The School District of Philadelphia, along with help from our community partners, has been progressive in its approach to limiting snack foods. Since 2004 the following actions have been taken:

Beverage Policy - Implemented in 2004 - We believe our beverage policy was one of the first nationally to offer only Milk, 100% Fruit Juice and Water in the cafeteria including vending machines.

  • Introduced low-fat and no-fat, low sugar flavored milk - Implemented 2009 for all milk sales in all schools.
  • This past year we introduced a new price structure to encourage the sale of water. There is $.25 price difference between water and 100 percent fruit juice. The Juice is more expensive.  Anecdotally, we have seen an increase in water sales.

Snack Standards - Implemented in 2005 - eliminated sale and service of all non-nutritional snack products in cafeterias including vending machines.  We will need to tweak our standards to be compliant with the new standards being implemented for the 2014-2015 school year.  The majority of the items are already in compliance with the new standards.

Wellness Policy - Initially implemented in 2006 (revised in 2011) reinforced beverage and snack standards for student sales and included outside food service areas. Biggest obstacles for 2014-2015 will be adherence to snack standards outside of the cafeteria including fundraisers.

What are some examples of new offerings from the district?

Whole grain low fat cookies and whole grain pretzels

How do you expect kids will respond? How are these healthier choices being promoted in the schools?  

We are focused on promoting our reimbursable lunch meal to students. Our snack sales are minimal and made available to students after they have been served lunch.

What resources would you recommend to families looking to eat healthier?

Let's Move! is a comprehensive initiative, launched by the First Lady, dedicated to solving the challenge of childhood obesity within a generation, so that children born today will grow up healthier and able to pursue their dreams.

We Can!  (Ways to Enhance Children's Activity & Nutrition) is a national movement designed to give parents, caregivers, and entire communities a way to help children 8 to 13 years old stay at a healthy weight.

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