Ask 11-year-old Kylie Lamp of Marietta what food she likes best at school, and her answer is far from out of the ordinary.
“Pizza is my favorite,” Lamp said. “Pizza, and then when we have chicken nuggets and mashed potatoes, that’s everyone’s favorite.”
But public schools have switched from fried to baked and from white to whole-grain to improve on things like pizza and chicken, and now into 2014, those switches include snacks and beverages.
The new Smart Snacks in School standards rolled out by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the 2014-2015 school year piggy-back onto the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act that brought in more fruit and less fat to school lunch lines. Now the reach extends to everything students can get their hands on in school-vending machines and a la carte snacks included.
“Now they’re pressing snack foods,” said Warren Local Schools Food Supervisor Barbara Cozzens. “They’re making sure kids are getting only healthy snacks during the day, so everything we sell in our a la carte line, and with vending machines, we have to make sure they can’t have access to them.”
The 2010 law championed by Michelle Obama and signed by President Obama set a list of healthy standards for school lunches in the hopes of combating childhood obesity, and the 2014 extension covers the remaining areas of food sold in schools.
Jennifer Currey, the resident district manager of AVI Fresh, the food management company that oversees Marietta, Belpre and the Washington County Career Center, said this year staff worked to find compliant snack substitutes rather than just eliminating them.
“Anything that’s not part of the regular lunch they get in line, like pretzels that are not usually whole grain, we had to find something else,” she said. “We put things out, and if students don’t like them, we take them away and try something else.”
Generally, the new guidelines cover everything that is not an entree or side option, like the chips high school students can purchase in line that are now only baked. New this year, every wheat product like bread or pasta must be 100 percent whole grain, rather than 50 percent.
“Nothing is more important than the health and well-being of our children,” said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a press release. “Parents and schools work hard to give our youngsters the opportunity to grow up healthy and strong, and providing healthy options throughout school cafeterias, vending machines, and snack bars will support their great efforts.”
The USDA predicted that about 91 percent of all schools are now compliant with the standards.
There are a few drawbacks.
“Vending machines can’t be on during the day at high school, and that money goes toward principal funds that can be used for student rewards and things that don’t come out of the general fund, so we lose some on that,” said Warren Local Superintendent Kyle Newton.
AVI Fresh made sure that its high school snack vending machines stay on, but stay stocked with things like granola bars and peanuts.
“It’s a challenge sometimes to source those products,” Currey said. “Instead of just eliminating things we’ve tried to find alternatives.”
Harmar Elementary principal Cheryl Cook said the phasing in of changes allows schools to build compliance over time.
“We had to work on getting breakfast items to be less sugary,” she said. “It’s so hard because some of the things that are cheaper are not as healthy.”
In addition to federal reimbursement that schools receive per meal served, compliant schools also receive an additional six cents per lunch served.
“If kids don’t like what we have, they’ll eat at home or bring lunch from home,” said Frontier Local Food Supervisor Donna Wickline. “Kids like their french fries, but now everything has gone from fried to baked.”
In high schools, where changes are a bit more visible because of the wider array of food options, students said they just learn to deal with it.
“I don’t think any of it is that big of a deal,” said Marietta High School student Eric Thompson, 15. “Most of the time, I feel like whatever I’m eating is about the same as what I was eating before.”
Vending machines must contain only water and healthy snacks or must be locked until 30 minutes after students are dismissed, and only high schools are allowed beverages like soda or Gatorade in limited quantities, while younger grades must stick to 100 percent juice or milk.
“We really try to educate kids on healthy foods,” Cozzens said. “You have to educate them in the classroom, and now you have to in the lunchroom.”
Wickline said Frontier does have some vending machines for students, but the district chose to turn off non-compliant ones rather than restocking them.
Kyleigh Holshu, 10, just began her last year at Harmar Elementary, and shares her classmates’ love of foods like chicken nuggets, cookies and chips.
“Even though I like chicken nuggets the best, I don’t mind eating vegetables that much,” she said. “We get a lot more fruits and vegetables like apples and carrots, and there’s no more cookies, but I get that I’m supposed to eat healthy.”
Children are still allowed to bring their own lunches from home with any foods they want as long as they keep it to themselves.
“We’ve been improving menus for the last few years, but there’s something each year that changes, so we just have to change too,” Wickline said.
Any events where food is sold outside school hours do not fall under the guidelines, but the USDA has asked states to begin setting standards for in-school events like bake sales to determine how frequently they can take place.