USDA targets candy, cola in new school nutrition regulations

Candy bars and Cokes will be replaced in school vending machines around the country with fruit cups and calorie-free flavored water under new snack standards unveiled Thursday. 

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The Department of Agriculture regulations apply to all food and drinks sold to kids in school, outside of the national school breakfast and lunch programs, which are already subject to new rules under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

The regulations on snacks or so-called “competitive foods” sold in vending machines and school stores are designed to combat the country’s childhood obesity problem.

“These changes are intended to improve the health and wellbeing of the Nation’s children, increase consumption of healthful foods during the school day and create an environment that reinforces the development of healthy eating habits,” according to the 232-page rule.

The new regulations don't expressly ban any specific food or drink items. But they create calorie and nutrient standards that would have the effect of barring some snacks from schools.

Schools have a year to comply with the new rules, which promote whole grains; fruits; vegetables and proteins.

In some cases, the proposed measures are already being implemented. The draft regulations for beverages, for example, largely mirror voluntary standards adopted by the American Beverage Association back in 2006.

"As a result of the industry's voluntary efforts, we have reduced beverage calories shipped to schools by 90 percent," the trade group said Thursday.

The new snack standards met with criticism from congressional Republicans and some school officials, who said they were already struggling to comply with costly regulations for the breakfast and lunch programs.

“I really do fear for the future of my program,” Megan Schaper, food service director for the State College Area School District in Pennsylvania, said during a congressional hearing on the entire slate of school new food regulations Thursday morning,

Sandra Ford, director of food and nutrition services for the Manatee County School District in Florida, said that complying with the new rules would cost the district as much as $975,000 a year.

Proponents of the new standards say that’s a drop in the bucket of what childhood obesity is costing the nation.  Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the epidemic now costs $190 billion annually.

First lady Michelle Obama, who has made tackling childhood obesity her signature effort, lauded the new rule.

“Unfortunately, we don’t always have control over the snacks our kids have access to when they’re away from home,” she said in a statement issued by the White House. “That’s why, as a mom myself, I am so excited that schools will now be offering healthier choices to students and reinforcing the work we do at home to help our kids stay healthy.”

Though considered an interim final rule, interested parties and members of the public will have 120 days to comment on the new rule once it is published in the Federal Register.

This story was updated at 4:22 p.m. with additional information.