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Ayala Laufer-Cahana, M.D. Headshot

Are Kids Going to Eat Less Junk at School?

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The days of snacking on candy, soda and chips in schools may soon be over. Last Friday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced new proposed standards for snacks sold at schools. The standards limit the amount of calories, fat, sugar and sodium of most foods sold at school and encourage whole grains, low fat, fruits and veggies. A few examples: Yogurt, granola bars, trail mix, dried fruit and fruit bars, pizza on whole grain crust and baked potato chips are in. Candy, soda, sweetened fruit juice, and most cookies are out.

Perhaps anticipating the backlash, the proposal exempts fundraisers, after-school sports events and treats sent by parents -- including birthday and holiday party goodies. It also allows for a yearlong transition.

The rules, required under the child nutrition law passed in 2010, are an effort to combat childhood obesity and close an obvious loophole: While the government-subsidized school lunch has to comply with nutrition rules, what's sold a la carte, in school stores, snack bars, or from vending machines and competes for kids' stomach share and lunch money, isn't federally regulated at all and can be of no nutritional value whatsoever.

Is it going to make a difference?

Is there evidence that stricter rules at school will encourage kids to eat less junk? Since many states and cities have already established regulations regarding foods sold at schools, there are already some comparisons that can be made.

California was one of the first states to implement rules for vending and selling foods in schools; these rules limit the caloric content, fat and sugar in snacks and ban soda and sweetened beverages. Last year I reported on a study in the Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine that compared California high school students' daily intake to the intake of students from 14 states without any school nutrition standards and showed that California kids ate fewer calories and consumed less fat and sugar per day at school -- 170 fewer -- compared to high school students in other states. And the kids didn't load up the missed calories after school. The Californian students took in 158 fewer calories a day, overall. A reduction of 158 calories is a big deal, as we gain weight very gradually, and reducing even 100 calories a day can prevent weight gain and put a dent in the obesity crisis.

Another study in Health Education & Behavior compared three middle schools that implemented a healthier snack and beverage nutrition policy with three that had no guidelines. Removing these items not only resulted in lower consumption of junk food at school and overall (no compensatory junk eating at home), but it also didn't seem to result in negative preoccupation with weight.

The New York Times recently reported that after decades of rising rates of obesity, several cities are reporting a decline. Philadelphia, my hometown, reported a 5 percent decline and has seen this decline among minorities and not just among high-income families. Philadelphia has implemented broad policies to fight obesity, including a ban on sugary drinks in school vending machines and school snack guidelines that limit calories, fat and serving size. It's hard to credit any one public health policy for the changing trend in childhood obesity rates, but the results are encouraging.

The importance of a healthy school environment

It will take a while until the snack food regulations are installed, and even longer until we can see their effects on kids' diets. But I think that paying attention and debating the foods sold at schools will have immediate educational outcomes.

As Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a press release last Friday: "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."

School or government doesn't determine what kids eat, but it can definitely set minimum standards that promote healthier choices, or at least not undermine healthy nutrition efforts by condoning and profiting from the sale of junk within school walls.

Discussing unhealthy snacks, and removing them from the cafeteria, has an educational purpose. I wouldn't be surprised if it influences the bottom line of what kids actually consume (kids do eat more than half their daily calories at school), but it's worth doing, regardless.

When the vending machine changes what's in its belly, kids consciously or unconsciously notice; this exposure can change minds, and hopefully also what's in kids' bellies. The USDA proposal will be open to public comment for 60 days. In the meantime, I'd love to hear your comments here.

Dr. Ayala

Full disclosure: I'm vice president of product development for Herbal Water, where we make organic herb-infused waters that have zero calories and no sugar or artificial ingredients. I'm also a pediatrician and have been promoting good nutrition and healthy lifestyle for many years.

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