The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has issued an interim final rule amending the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program regulations “to establish nutrition standards for all foods sold in schools, other than food sold under the lunch and breakfast programs.” Acting under Section 208 of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, the agency considered scientific recommendations and voluntary standards for beverages and snack foods, as well as more than 250,000 public comments, in developing the “Smart Snacks in School” standards, which must also adhere to the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Effective July 1, 2014, the final rule requires all competitive foods sold in schools to meet the following guidelines: (i) “be a grain product that contains 50 percent or more whole grains by weight or have as the first ingredient a whole grain”; or (ii) “have as the first ingredient one of the non-grain major food groups: fruits, vegetables, dairy or protein foods (meat, beans, poultry, seafood, eggs, nuts, seeds, etc.)”; or (iii) “be a combination food that contains 1/4 cup of fruit and/or vegetable”; or (iv)“for the period through June 30, 2016, contain 10 percent of the Daily Value of a nutrient of public health concern based on the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans (i.e., calcium, potassium, vitamin D or dietary fiber)”; and (v) “if water is the first ingredient, the second ingredient must be one of the food items above.” In addition, the rule restricts the percentage of calories in each item that can be derived from fat (35 percent) and saturated fat (10 percent), with exemptions for reduced fat cheeses, nuts, seeds, seafood, or dried fruit mixes with no added nutritive sweeteners, and limits the amount of sodium (230 mg), sugar (35 percent by weight), and calories (200 calories) per item as packaged or served.

Beverages must also meet strict requirements for elementary and middle schools—which can now sell only low-fat or non-fat milk or nutritionally equivalent milk alternatives; full-strength fruit or vegetable juice; diluted fruit or vegetable juice; or water—while high schools will no longer be able to sell sugar-sweetened beverages or sports drinks that exceed 60 calories per 12-ounce serving.

“Nothing is more important than the health and well-being of our children,” said USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack in a June 27, 2013, press release. “Parents and schools work hard to give our youngsters the opportunity to grow up healthy and strong, and providing healthy options throughout schools cafeterias, vending machines, and snack bars will support their great efforts.”

Meanwhile, Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity and the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) have already hailed the new standards as “historic,” citing in particular the move to exclude sports drinks and other “mid-calorie” beverages from school vending machines. “Thanks to the hard work of the USDA, we are witnessing a dramatic transformation of the school food environment in this country,” said Rudd Center Acting Director Marlene Schwartz. “Students and parents have been frustrated by the hypocrisy of teaching nutrition in the classroom and then undermining those lessons in the cafeteria and vending machines. Thanks to last year’s changes to school meals and today’s announcement, our nation’s schools will practice what they preach and teach nutrition through action, not just words.” See Rudd Center and CSPI Press Releases, June 27, 2013.