Food Options in School to Get Healthier

Massachusetts Public Health Council announces new Nutrition Standards for Competitive Foods and Beverages in Public Schools

Would you agree that children should consume less soda, cookies, chips and other high sugar, high fat foods but more fruits and vegetables? 

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health, Public Health Council thinks so.  To help that happen, they have released new nutrition standards for competitive foods in public schools (105 CMR 225.000).  The new regulations take effect August 2012, so for the following school year, not this year.

The new regulations apply to extra items children may buy in school from vending machines, snack shacks, booster programs, and a la carte items in the cafeteria.  The school lunch program already has similar standards in place.  Part of the purpose of the regulations is to increase healthy options.  Whereever food is sold on school grounds, except non-refrigerated vending machines and beverage only vending machines, fresh fruit and vegetables must be offered.  Drinking water must be available free of charge throughout the school day.  The regulations also decrease options for "foods of minimal nutritional value" during the school day.  The change is part of a nationwide trend to reduce foods of minimal nutrition in schools so that schools are not part of the problem of the growing obesity trend among young people.

What are the new restrictions on beverages? 

  • Only water, juice, and milk may be sold.  Juice must be 100% juice and 4 ounces or less.  Milk must be 8 ounces or less and have no more than 22 grams of sugar (and this will be further reduced in the future) and no artificial sweeteners.  Waters may have natural flavors added, but no sugar or sweeteners of any kind. 

What are the new restrictions on food?

  • No food item may have more than 200 Calories.  Foods must have less than 35% of calories from fat, except for seeds, nuts, nut butters, and reduced fat cheese.  All foods must be listed as 0 grams trans fat per serving and they must have less than 10% of calories from saturated fat.
  • Except for fruit and yogurt, foods must have less than 35% of calories from sugar.  Fruit may not have any added sugar and yogurt may have up to 30 grams for 8 ounces.
  • No food is allowed to have more than 200 mg sodium (unless it is an entree in which case it may have up to 480 mg sodium). 
  • Grain foods such as bagels & pretzels must have a whole grain as the first ingredient. 
  • No food may have artificial sweeteners or more than trace amounts of caffeine.

It was interesting to read the reason for "no artificial sweeteners."  Dr. Lauren Smith explained to the Public Health Council that, "the objective is to encourage children to enjoy natural flavors of foods and beverages – not artificially enhanced with a sweet taste."

How big of an impact will this have?

The sugar restrictions eliminate soda and other sugary beverages, most cookies and candy, and the fat and sodium restrictions further eliminate cookies, candy and as well as many items like chips.  In California, researchers observed a decrease in the rate of increase in obesity after restrictions were placed on competitive foods and beverages.(1) In an interview with Yale's Rudd Center for Obesity and Food Policy, Dr. Patricia Crawford said they found that restrictions on competitive food and beverages did improve nutrition among school children because they were more likely to choose lunch rather than food from vending machines.

However, eliminating these foods is already common.  As of 2008, 57% of Massachusetts middle and high schools already did not offer soda, cookies, candy, or similar treats on school grounds during school hours.  This trend has been increasing as more schools adopt wellness policies.  Many schools already adhere to the similar voluntary "A-List" recommendations of Massachusetts Action for Healthy Kids.  So, for schools that already have strict wellness policies that adhere to the voluntary regulations, students may not notice a large difference.  But some schools may have to make significant changes to their policies.

Finally, the regulations apply from 30 minutes before the school day until 30 minutes after the school day.  This means, for example, that they do not apply during a night time or weekend sporting event at school.  Also, it obviously has no impact on what happens away from school.  So, while options for food will be limited for the significant portion of the day that children are at school, the rest of the day requires on-going guidance from parents and caregivers.  For tips on actions you can take in your home, the CDC has a nice article with Ideas to Help Children Maintain a Healthy Weight.

Eric is a registered dietitian (RD) with a Master of Science in Nutrition and also a website developer who wrote the software that helps to maintain the A-List for John Stalker Institute.

  1. Sanchez-Vaznaugh EV, Sánchez BN, Baek J, Crawford PB. 'Competitive' Food And Beverage Policies: Are They Influencing Childhood Overweight Trends? Health Affairs. 2010 Mar;29(3):436-446.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Janet Sroczynski July 27, 2011 at 09:10 PM
Let's take a glance back at a very popular school lunch menu item from the late 1970's to early 1980's at OA; and see how well you do, nutrition-wise to today's standards and cost(s) to produce/serve. If you are up for it, let's update it to include the option of substituting apple sauce in place of the sugar content, and reduce caloric intake, increase flavor and reduce fat-content. Can you make it and serve it, for what it cost back then - a historic .40-cents, as a hot-lunch option. Here is the popular school lunch menu item from OA: Hot ravioli with cheese and sauce, boiled white rice, broccoli, a chocolate brownie and small container of white whole milk. The item was so popular, many students would opt for double-hot-lunches on that day; at a cost of: .80-cents. If you have the time and interest-level, to compare that popular hot-lunch menu item, to what is currently being served -and then include the differences between those two menu items, including the substitution of apple sauce instead of the sugar in the chocolate brownie, I would be curious to read through your results. If you would really like to bump it up a notch, try to eliminate the sodium content in the canned sauce/pasta sauce/marinara sauce -and opt instead to make it using fresh whole tomatoes instead, from a local farm stand and/or use organic-grown tomatoes, including fresh basil, fresh oregano, light extra virgin olive oil, and so forth. And then tee up your results.
Bob Havey July 29, 2011 at 02:40 PM
Food 'Options'? This is merely more unwarranred regulation. I'd suggest letting the PARENTS decide what's best for their children, but that's probably much too radical an idea! Send snacks and lunches from home and let the school lunch program go down the tubes.
Eric Esterling July 29, 2011 at 02:53 PM
@Bob: you call it unwarranted regulation, but you suggest going further? Parents already have the option of sending snacks and lunches from home. Nothing in the new regulation changes that. What is changed is a reduction of options offered by the school -- which puts more control/influence in parents' hands.
Janet Sroczynski July 29, 2011 at 03:37 PM
For the readers that are picking up on this email-thread, here are a few helpful hints to get you started. Locally, there is 1) http://www.plantationproducts.com for seeds; fresh basil, fresh oregano, mentioned earlier in my writing. And in this magazine, online at: 2) http://www.oldhouseonline.com -Fall/Winter-2009 edition; from "New Old House" magazine-at newstands/local libraries, request a hard-copy or view the article online, was this helpful section: "Heirloom Apples" - at 3) http://www.MillerNurseries.com and 4) http://www.SouthMeadowFruitGardens.com. And yes, according to the article, the history of our land in the area -our climate, growing season and soil is suitable for these "Heirloom Apples" -and they are currently growing in the surrounding Boston area communities. -enjoy.
Bob Havey July 29, 2011 at 06:36 PM
I never said anything about 'going further'. I said it should be left up to the parents. That's not going further; that's leaving it in the natural order of things.


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