Back-to-school: Snacks get healthy; diet soda still OK

Naomi Woods, left, eats lunch with her classmates at Northeast Elementary Magnet, in Danville, Ill.

Food advocates welcome the USDA's new guidelines for school snacks but question why diet soda and vending machines are on campuses at all.

It's back to school for a lot of students this week, and the big buzz seems to be more healthful school meals and smart snacks.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 has already seen 100,000 schools set USDA-mandated nutrition standards for school lunches over the last year to curb escalating childhood obesity rates, making way for more fruits and vegetables (the more colorful, the better), whole grains and calorie limits.

Related: Food fight: The fallout over free school lunches

"The biggest change is that you have to serve more fresh fruits and vegetables," said chef Ann Cooper, who has revolutionized school food from New York to California with her "made-from-scratch" mantra. She now serves as director of nutrition services of the Boulder Valley School District in Colorado.

School snacks get healthy: The old and new nutritional standards for school snacks compared.www.fns.usda.gov

The old and new nutritional standards for school snacks are compared.

Starting this school year, schools will have a year to implement healthier standards for breakfast as well as junk food sold in vending machines and a la carte lines.

For example, chips will still be allowed, but they will need to be of the baked variety.

Students can still bring in whatever they want from home — such as cookies and other treats on birthdays and for after-school football games.

"Kudos to the USDA for taking some great steps," Cooper said, but quickly added that the agency's guidelines failed to address things such as high-fructose corn syrup and dyes.

"Diet soda is fine – which is an abomination as far as I am concerned," Michele Simon, a consultant with the Center for Food Safety, said of the new rules.

"They are still focused on nutrients and grams of fat, and not grams of sugar," she said, explaining that under the new rules, flavored milk has a size limit but no sugar limit.

The big question for Simon is: "What are vending machines doing in schools in the first place?"

Kevin Concannon is undersecretary for the USDA's Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, the agency in charge of enforcing the new rules. He says the issue is not that schools have vending machines, it's about what's in them.

"Up to this point vending machines have had less-than-healthy food," Concannon said. "But the new guidelines will provide vendors with an opportunity to change that."

And what about diet soda?

"If it's diet, if it's not sweetened, do we have the authority to say, 'You may not serve that'?" Concannon asked.

Related: Child makes a short film about gross school lunches, wins awards

Simon and other food advocates worry that the assumption is that junk or competitive foods — thus called because they compete with healthy foods — are going to stay in schools.

"It's like the USDA said, 'Here's some nutrition standards to make them less junky,'" Simon said. "There's a huge question about how they are going to enforce the rules. They don't have the capacity to go in and check every vending machine."

Concannon said that school systems will now be audited once every three years; in the past, it was once every five years. And school food authorities are now required to submit data to the USDA.

Schools that don't follow the new guidelines are at risk of losing federal funding, but he said that the USDA will work with every school at the state level before pulling the trigger.

Colorado, North Carolina, South Carolina, Montana and Oklahoma have already achieved 100 percent success in serving healthful school lunches in the first year of implementation, Concannon said.

When students get back to the Boulder Valley School District this week, they can expect hormone- and antibiotic-free beef and chicken, organic milk, and made-from-scratch meals.

"Not every kid loves it: They really like hamburgers, and even though we don't serve them that often, they are organic and hormone-free," Cooper said.

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