WASHINGTON - Whole-grain crackers, low-fat yogurt, fruit, and water could become the school snacks of the future, driving out fattening fancies such as cola and fried chips.
The Institute of Medicine yesterday recommended new standards for school snacks and foods that sharply limit calories, fat and sugar while encouraging more nutritious eating.
Concerned about the rise of obesity in young people, Congress asked the institute to develop the standards. Lawmakers now will consider them, as will state and local school officials.
"Making sure that all foods and drinks available in schools meet nutrition standards is one more way schools can help children establish lifelong healthy eating habits," said Virginia A. Stallings, director of the nutrition center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and head of the committee that prepared the report. "Foods and beverages should not be used to reward or to discipline for academic activities or behavior."
Food sold in school cafeterias under federally assisted lunch programs already must meet nutritional standards. The institute's recommendations cover items considered competitive with those foods. Examples include snacks in vending machines and other food and drinks sold at school but not under the federal program.
Selling these foods is a moneymaker in some communities. Janey Thornton, president of the School Nutrition Association, said she expected complaints about losing this source of funds if the recommendations were adopted.
"Shame on us if we try to balance the school budget based on the nutritional health of kids," said Thornton, whose organization represents school food-service directors.
The standards would not apply to bag lunches that students bring from home.
Nevertheless, they would help children learn principles of good nutrition, which they could apply at home, Thornton said.
Her organization thinks the report does not go far enough. She would like to see national standards for foods and beverages in schools enforced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The Center for Consumer Freedom worried that the report could lead to a new government program: "no child with a fat behind."
The growing rate of obesity is caused by lack of physical activity rather than overeating, according to the group, which says it represents restaurants, food companies, and individuals.
The institute report recommends a two-tiered system of foods for schools.
Tier 1 would be allowed in all grades during the school day and after-school activities. These foods would have to provide at least one serving of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, or nonfat or low-fat dairy. There would be limits for fat, sugar and salt.
Tier 2 foods would be available only to high school students and only after school hours. These foods would be limited in calories, salt, sugar and fat; drinks could have just have five or fewer calories per portion, and no caffeine.
At the discretion of coaches, sports drinks would be available to students involved in an hour or more of vigorous athletic activity.
Food currently available in schools varies from district to district.
"These guidelines are important, but people do not eat guidelines," said Lisa Hark, director of the Nutrition Education Program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and host of the TLC show Honey We're Killing the Kids. "It's up to individual schools and districts to have some kind of policy in place."
Gov. Corzine two months ago signed a law that standardizes school nutrition policy throughout New Jersey. A state agriculture spokeswoman said officials could not yet compare their regulations with yesterday's recommendations.
The Philadelphia School District has a nutrition curriculum that Hark called "a model program" that could be adopted elsewhere.
Sugary sodas were removed four years ago, said district spokeswoman Amy Guerin. "Now all students can find in a vending machine is 100 percent fruit juice, milk and water."
"No one is going over with students why they are eating what they are eating," said Joan Nachmani, director of nutrition education programs in the city schools. The key, Nachmani said, is getting students to make healthy choices beyond the school day.
"There is a lot of temptation out there," she said. "We want to change their behavior."
Here are examples of foods, besides the school-lunch program, that yesterday's report recommends for schools.
Tier 1 foods: OK for all students
Allowed at all grade levels during the regular school day and in after-school activities - all in portion sizes that provide 200 calories or less:
Individual fruits, such as apples or pear slices or fruit cups packed in juice or water.
Vegetables such as baby carrots.
Dried or dehydrated fruit such as raisins, apricots, cherries and bananas.
100 percent fruit juice or low-salt vegetable juice.
Low-fat, low-salt whole-grain crackers or chips.
Whole-grain, low-sugar cereals.
100 percent whole-grain mini-bagels.
8-ounce servings of low-fat, fruit-flavored yogurt (no more than 30 grams of sugars).
8-ounce servings of low-fat or nonfat chocolate or strawberry milk with no more than 22 grams of sugars.
Low-sodium, whole-grain bars containing sunflower seeds, almonds or walnuts.
Tier 2 foods: For upper grades only
Available only to high school students after school hours:
Low-salt baked potato chips, crackers and pretzels.
Animal crackers and graham crackers with no more than 35 percent of calories from sugar.
Caffeine-free, calorie-free, non-fortified soft drinks.
Ice cream bars low in sugar and fat.
Unranked foods: For no students
Not available at all because they do not meet the standards:
Chips and pretzels that have too much sugar or salt.
Cheese crackers that have too much fat or sodium.
Breakfast or granola bars that have too much fat or sugar.
Ice cream products that have too much fat.
SOURCE: Institute of Medicine
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