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Many of you may have heard about some big changes coming this Fall to the school lunch and breakfast programs. As a result of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA), the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has updated the nutrition standards for school meals for the first time in fifteen years! The result? In cafeterias nationwide, students will be served more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and meals will now have limits on calories, saturated fat and sodium (among other changes). (For ideas on how to use these meal changes as a teaching opportunity, check out NEA HIN’s Healthy Steps, Healthy Lives).

Something you may not know is that the HHFKA also requires the USDA to update nutrition standards for snack foods and beverages that are sold outside of the school meal program—so called “competitive foods” that are sold in vending machines, food courts, cafeteria à la carte lines, and snack bars in nearly all schools in the United States. The current federal nutrition standards for snack foods and beverages have been in place since 1979, and are weak enough to allow the sale of snack foods that are high in fat, sugar, and calories, and beverages that are high in sugar and contain little, if any, nutritional value (i.e. soda, sports drinks, flavored water).

Recognizing the link between poor diet and rising rates of childhood obesity many states and school districts have created their own nutrition standards to limit unhealthy snack foods and beverages that go above and beyond the federal guidelines. However, in practice, many of these policies are inadequate or weakly enforced at the local level.

To help states and school districts create stronger, more comprehensive policies for snack foods and beverages, NEA HIN has created a policy brief, Bag the Junk: Improving Competitive Food Policy to Create Healthier, Smarter School Environments, which is available for free on our website.  The brief provides background about “competitive foods,” an overview of the research on the issue, and policy recommendations for states and local school districts. I encourage you to check it out, and share it with your colleagues.

Some of you may be thinking: “why should I bother working on a policy for my state or school district, when the USDA is about come out with a new federal policy?” My answer to you is that while the new USDA guidelines will be an improvement over the current federal nutrition standards, they are expected to set only a minimum standard, leaving it up to individual states or school districts to create stronger policies that suit their specific needs. Therefore, states and school districts should feel free to start working now to set nutrition standards that create healthier school nutrition environments.

Want to learn more about the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act and how it affects the school nutrition environment? Check out the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project at http://www.healthyschoolfoodsnow.org.

Originally published at http://www.neahin.org/blog/bag-the-junk.html

This post is part of the MomsRising "Making the School Day Healthier" Blog Carnival headlined by Top Chef Lorena Garcia."

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