WASHINGTON — The government for the first time is proposing broad new standards to make sure all foods sold in schools are more healthful, a change that would ban the sale of almost all candy, greasy foods and high-calorie soda and sports drinks on campus.
Under rules the Department of Agriculture proposed Friday, school-vending machines would start selling water, lower-calorie sports drinks, diet sodas and baked chips. Lunchrooms that now sell fatty “a la carte” items such as mozzarella sticks and nachos would have to switch to more-healthful pizzas, low-fat hamburgers, fruit cups and yogurt.
The rules, required under a child-nutrition law passed by Congress in 2010, are part of the government’s effort to combat childhood obesity. While many schools have made improvements in their lunch menus and vending-machine choices, others still are selling high-fat, high-calorie foods.
Under the proposal, the Agriculture Department would set fat, calorie, sugar and sodium limits on almost all foods sold in schools. Current standards already regulate the nutritional content of school breakfasts and lunches that are subsidized by the federal government, but most lunchrooms also have “a la carte” lines that sell other foods.
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Food sold through vending machines and in other ways outside the lunchroom has not been federally regulated.
“Parents and teachers work hard to instill healthy eating habits in our kids, and these efforts should be supported when kids walk through the schoolhouse door,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said.
Most snacks sold in school would have to have less than 200 calories. Elementary and middle schools could sell only water, low-fat milk or 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice. High schools could sell some sports drinks, diet sodas and iced teas, but the calories would be limited. Drinks would be limited to 12-ounce portions in middle schools, and 8-ounce portions in elementary schools.
The standards will cover vending machines, the “a la carte” lunch lines, snack bars and any other foods regularly sold around school. They would not apply to in-school fundraisers or bake sales, though states have the power to regulate them. The new guidelines also would not apply to after-school concessions at school games or theater events, goodies brought from home for classroom celebrations or anything students bring for personal consumption.
The new rules are the latest in a long list of changes designed to make foods served in schools more healthful and accessible.
Nutritional guidelines for the $11 billion government-subsidized school-meal program were revised last year and put in place last fall. The 2010 child-nutrition law also provided more money for schools to serve free and reduced-cost lunches.
Last year’s rules faced criticism from some conservatives, including some Republicans in Congress, who said the government shouldn’t be telling kids what to eat.
Mindful of that backlash, the Agriculture Department exempted in-school fundraisers from federal regulation and proposed different options for some parts of the rule, including the calorie limits for drinks in high schools, which would be limited to either 60 or 75 calories in a 12-ounce portion.
Schools, the food industry, interest groups and other critics or supporters of the new proposal will have 60 days to comment and suggest changes. A final rule could be in place as soon for the 2014 school year.
On Friday, representatives from the snack-food and beverage industry said they generally agreed with the guidelines.
School officials also expressed their support.
“I don’t think it’s going to be difficult for schools to implement,” said Jessica Shelly, director of food services for Cincinnati Public Schools. “I think most schools are already doing 90 percent of what’s in the guidelines.”
Material from The New York Times is included in this report.