Healthier snacks now required in school cafeterias

By Vicki Hyatt | Jul 01, 2014

As of July 1, the snack options that can be offered as part of the school lunch program have changed dramatically.

No longer can Little Debbie Cakes or sugary Hostess snacks be sold during school hours. The same is true for sugary or high-sodium drinks.

The new "Smart Snacks" guidelines are part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, a federal law that changed the nutrition standards in school lunch programs funded by the federal government.

The new meal guidelines were implemented for the 2013-14 school year, and this year, rules limiting the sugar, sodium and fat content of the snack items sold in cafeterias during the school day becomes effective.

It is a change that has Allison Francis, the food services manager for Haywood County Public Schools, concerned. That’s because the school’s cost to prepare a meal exceeds the amount of funds brought in through the government subsidies and purchased lunch tickets.

Francis explained that the school lunch program is one that must break even each year with the amount from sales covering all the costs. In the past, the way this has been possible is through the sale of snack foods in the cafeterias.

The new standards, Francis confesses, “scare me to death. We do have to increase lunch prices by 10 cents. That’s all we can go up according to the requirements. Plus, every time we increase prices, we lose participation.”

The new standards that went into effect last year requiring more fruits, vegetables and whole grain foods to be part of the meal have increased costs — and the extra funds to cover the increased prices weren’t forthcoming.

“We really, really worked hard this year to look at labor costs,” Francis said, “and probably have 20 less employees based on attrition and a hiring freeze. We’ve also stopped serving favorite things that cost too much.”

For instance, French toast sticks have been a breakfast favorite with the students, but when made with whole grain bread, they came in at 20 cents a serving and had to be taken from the menu.

“We can’t operate with some of the costs involved plus the loss of revenue we will have,” Francis said. “They have almost gone too far with trying to make lunches healthier.”

As a nutrition specialist, Francis understands the theory behind the changes, but as a department manager, the financial realities involved with the changes may prove more than challenging.

“We want to serve our kids the best thing we can serve, but they just don’t provide enough money,” she said. “We can’t do it based on what they are giving us now.”

In general, the snacks offered for sale during school hours must include more whole grain products, more fruit, vegetables and low-fat dairy products. The new rules say snacks must be lower in sodium, sugar and fat than snacks that may have been on the menu before and address portion sizes, ones that vary depending on age group.

Snacks must be less than 200 calories, with less than 35 percent of those calories coming from fat and less than 35 percent of the weight coming from sugar.

Standards only impact foods sold on school campuses during the day, not those sold at events such as basketball or football games held after hours.

Neither do the standards interfere with fundraising bake sales or the snacks parents send to school for occasions such as in-class birthday celebrations.

For beverages, all schools can sell water, unflavored low and fat-free milk, percent fruit and vegetable juices with no added sugar. In high schools, larger portions are allowed, and added choices include calorie-free flavored water and other low-calorie beverages.

For now, Francis is focused on following the rules and finding products students will deem worth buying — something that will help keep the school lunch program in the black.

“Next year, we really hope the students will get past the fact they can’t get chips and Gatorade anymore and will start buying healthier things.”

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