February 28, 2013

Editorial: Healthier snacks in our schools


---- — The U.S. Department of Agriculture is moving to eliminate the sale of junk food in schools, and our students will be better for it.

Cafeteria meals aren’t the big culprit anymore; gains have been made in recent years in improving the health requirements of the food served to kids.

The government has required that food-service offerings include more whole grains, vegetables, fruit and lower-fat dairy products. Those changes, by the way, brought complaints from some parents, who feared their kids wouldn’t eat if forced, for example, to have wheat bread instead of white. But local schools tell us most children have adapted easily to the more healthy offerings.

The latest development is a move by the USDA to eliminate the sale of all junk food in schools. That is targeting the snacks that students can purchase.

A number of schools in the North Country have already voluntarily switched banned candy and soda sales in vending machines and other outlets.

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand was one of the lawmakers leading the charge for change. She pushed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Schools Act, signed into law in 2010, which requires the USDA to establish nutrition standards for all foods sold in schools in what is referred to as the “Smart Snacks in School Rule.”

It was designed to promote a healthy lifestyle while not taking all the fun — or fundraising — out of the snack situation.

Her office summed up the USDA’s proposal, saying it:

▶ Promotes the availability of snack foods with whole grains, low-fat dairy, fruits, vegetables or protein as their main ingredients.

▶ Ensures snack foods are lower in fat, sugar and sodium and provide more nutrients.

▶ Allows variation by age group for factors such as beverage portion size and caffeine content.

▶ Preserves the ability for parents to send in bagged lunches of their choosing or treats for activities like birthday parties, holidays and other celebrations.

▶ Allows schools to continue traditions like occasional fundraisers and bake sales.

▶ Ensures that standards only affect foods that are sold on campus during the school day. Foods sold at after-school sporting events or other activities aren’t covered.

▶ Allows local and regional autonomy by establishing only minimum requirements. States and schools that have stronger standards will be able to maintain their own policies.

The new standards won’t start until at least one full school year after public comment is considered and rules are published, so schools and vendors have time to adapt.

The leaders and food-service personnel from schools in this area have shown that they care about the health and well-being of their students. They see first-hand the effects on children of poor eating habits.

We urge those schools that haven’t already eliminated unhealthy snacks to act on this important initiative before the USDA deadline.