By Jonathan Purtle

Last Friday, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced new standards to regulate the nutritional content of food sold in schools. The standards come in response to a bipartisan request from Congress for something to be done about childhood obesity in the U.S.— an issue of public health priority, and national security, which has been getting worse for the past 30 years. In 1980, about six percent of the nation’s school-aged children were obese. In 2010, 18 percent were obese (an additional 15 percent were overweight, so fully one-third were carrying around too many pounds for their height).

Why might school food environments be a place to intervene? As noted in an issue brief recently published by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, food consumed at school accounts for between 35 and 50 percent of a kid’s diet. About 40 percent of students buy, and eat, at least one snack at a school daily; 68 percent purchase and guzzle at least one sugary drink.

A few years back, Congress passed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Among other things, the legislation requires the USDA to develop nutritional standards for all food sold in schools — not just that which is dished out on the plates of federally-supported school meals. In the world of public health, these foods are referred as “competitive foods” and include that which is offered a la carte in the cafeteria (e.g., Domino's Pizza), at school stores (Snickers), and in vending machines (Pepsi). (All of these were available at my schools in Radnor Township in the 1990s). Parents can still send their kids to school with whatever they see fit (or unfit) to eat. Birthdays party sweets and bake sales will not be subject to regulation.

The new USDA standards are informed by an Institute of Medicine (IOM) report on the issue as well as a large serving of nutrition and public health policy research. The proposed federal regulations set minimum standards for school across the country and do not preempt state and local school food policies that are more strict.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently mapped states' school food policies and found that 39 states already had some sort of policy in place to regulate the full range of foods sold in schools. As of October 2010, New Jersey partially met six of the 13 standards that IOM enumerated in its report; Delaware met one, Pennsylvania met zero (listings are on pages 10 and 11 of the CDC report).

Research suggests that these policies have positive effects on children’s health. A national study found that the stronger a state’s school food policy the less weight its adolescent population gained between 2003 and 2006.

The new USDA regulations sound like smart policy to me. But let your voice be heard if they sound like a wrongful snack attack to you. The proposed standards are available online and will be published in the Federal Register next week – marking the beginning of a 60 day public comment period. You can voice your concerns through

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