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This blog post originally appeared in Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution blog.

The new U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Smart Snacks in School rule, nutritional standards to ensure that snack foods and beverages are healthy, will go into effect during the 2014-2015 school year.Research by the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project shows most U.S. secondary schools do not offer fruits and vegetables in stores, snack bars, or vending machines, but many do sell less-healthy options. Clearly, we need to raise the bar.

Guidelines for Smart Snacks Support Parents’ Lessons at Home

As a mom of four, I try to make healthy choices for what my kids eat at home and also encourage them to do the same when they’re out. But it’s tough to expect children always to pick nutritious items when regularly offered less-healthy options. I shouldn’t have been—but was!—surprised when I learned that my first grader purchased a sugary drink every day with lunch.

This experience reinforced for me that no parent—not even a registered dietitian who works on school nutrition policy—can keep track of what her child is eating outside of the home during the day. It’s time for parents and schools to work together to make sure that all the foods and drinks that schools serve our kids are healthy. That way, children will make a good choice every time, because all their options are wholesome.

Many parents favor the new guidelines. A Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project poll showed that 80 percent of parents support national nutrition standards for snack and a la carte foods in schools. Recent findings from Gallup buttressed these results, revealing that two-thirds of Americans say that if given the opportunity, they would vote for a law requiring food sold in public schools to meet high nutritional standards.

Highlights of the USDA Smart Snacks in School rule include:

• Snacks need to be reasonable, kid-sized portions. They generally must have fewer than 200 calories, and be low in fat, sodium, and sugar. At a minimum, these foods must fit into these categories:
o Fruit
o Vegetable
o Protein
o Dairy
o Whole grain

• Food fundraisers are still an option. The rule covers foods and beverages usually available to students. If parents, teachers, and students want occasionally to sell items that depart from the nutritional standards as fundraisers, state and local leaders can allow that. Many schools, however, find they can make just as much money, if not more, with nonfood campaigns.

• The rule only applies to the “school day.” The standards pertain to all foods sold before, during, or up to 30 minutes after the school day. They do not apply to evening or weekend activities such as football games or band concerts.

Smart Snacks Bolster the Bottom Line, Reduce Waist Lines

In addition to enjoying widespread support, healthier school snack standards should also improve kids’ health. A recent health impact assessment (HIA) by the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project found that offering healthier snack and a la carte foods in schools can significantly reduce children’s risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Additional research demonstrates that students in states with strong school nutrition standards gain less excess weight than those without such guidelines.

Schools also need to factor budget and other practical considerations into their decision making about school foods. Our HIA found that schools serving and selling healthier snack and a la carte foods often break even or increase food service revenue. When fewer tempting treats are available for sale, students are more likely to purchase a school meal—a change that benefits children’s health and school budgets. Our Q and A with the study’s lead economic analyst and interactive lunch cost calculator explain this finding.

Schools Can Serve Healthier Snacks

Finally, many schools already have nutrition standards for snacks. Thousands of schools have achievedHealthier US School Challenge recognition from USDA or taken part in the Healthy Schools Program of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. These schools show that selling nutritious foods is doable.

The next, vital step is for all districts to implement these standards. I encourage you to get involved to make sure that schools in your community are on track to meet the Smart Snacks in School rule by sharing success stories and working with local decision-makers.

Offering nutritious snacks will help ensure that the healthy choice is the easy choice for all students. It is our responsibility as their parents, caretakers, teachers, and leaders to make this change happen—for the sake of our children’s long-term wellbeing.

Learn why USDA’s Smart Snacks in School rule is an important step for improving kids’ health. 

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