On Friday, the USDA announced new rules that would make snack foods—like chips and cookies—unavailable to kids in schools. Naturally, the Internet exploded with stories about how this was yet another federal power grab over what our kids eat.  While I agree with the outrage, people need to understand: this isn’t really news at all.  These “new” rules are part of Michelle Obama’s “Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act” (better known in my circles as the “Still Hungry and No Healthier Kids Act”) which passed Congress in 2010. Of course, the fact that this bill passed two-years ago doesn’t make it any less annoying when the agency starts to issue these rules.  Therefore, it’s worth revisiting what the First Lady considered a legislative victory:

  • Foods like chips, snack cakes, nachos and mozzarella sticks would be taken out of lunch lines and vending machines. In their place would be foods like baked chips, trail mix, diet sodas, lower-calorie sports drinks and other low-fat items.
  • The USDA would set fat, calorie, sugar and sodium limits on foods sold in school vending machines, school stores, and in the cafeteria’s “a la carte” line (which until now have been exempt from the school lunch rules).
  • Most snacks sold in school would have to have less than 200 calories.
  • Elementary and middle schools could sell only water, low-fat milk or 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice.
  • High schools could sell some sports drinks, diet sodas and iced teas, but the calories would be limited.
  • Drinks would be limited to 12-ounce portions in middle schools and to 8-ounce portions in elementary schools.
  • The standards will cover vending machines, the “a la carte” lunch lines, snack bars and any other foods regularly sold around school.
  • These rules won't apply to in-school fundraisers or bake sales, after-school concessions at school games or theater events, goodies brought from home for classroom celebrations, or anything students bring for their own personal consumption.

You know, there’s a part of me that doesn’t really care that school kids won’t have access to these now banned snack foods. Personally, I’m not a big fan of this type of food and I limit my own children’s consumption of these snacks.  But it does bother me that these rules are being made in Washington and that local schools are being dictated to and told how and what they can feed kids. After all, many schools were already trying hard to improve school lunches before the school lunch reform bill was passed in 2010. In fact, in January 2011, the School Nutrition Association (SNA) released a survey of 1,294 school foodservice directors showing that schools were already trying to improve the food served to kids. Here are some of the highlights from the survey:

  • Nationwide, nearly every school district offers fresh fruits and vegetables (98%)
  • Whole grain foods have become readily accessible (97%)
  • 89% of school districts offer salad bars or pre-packaged salads
  • About two-thirds provide vegetarian meals (63%)
  •  Virtually all districts offer fat-free or 1% milk (98%)

This survey was completed BEFORE Michelle Obama’s school lunch reforms went into effect which proves efforts to improve school lunches did not require federal government action. It only required public outcry, parental demand, and media attention. Clearly these school lunch officials were paying attention and were working to make changes.

And again, while I’m not one to defend a kid’s right to eat Doritos or slurp Red Bull at school, I have to admit that these new rules make me a little concerned about kids who just haven’t been able to stomach the “new and improved” school lunches.  When considering these new snack limitations, it's important to remember that after Michelle Obama’s widely panned lunch reforms were put in place, many kids simply refused to eat it. YouTube videos of kids saying they were starving went viral. Food waste became the new “problem” as many kids simply skipped meals altogether. Others were simply throwing the entire meal into the garbage can (this generated calls for cameras on garbage cans in order to track what kids were throwing out).  And of course, who can forget the situation in the LA county schools where the waste was so bad that the school district entered into a partnership with a local homeless shelter to give away the food the kids refused to eat.  At least someone was eating!

And in another case of  “one size fits all” not really fitting anyone, some kids were left hungry by the (admittedly generous) 850 calorie limit on school lunches because they were involved in calorie-burning sports programs and needed more than 850 calories.  Considering these issues, where will these kids get the calories (or the calorie boost) they need? We can all laugh about this but the truth is some kids rely on these alternative venues to get more food before they engage in these rigorous sports events. 

Ultimately, though, I always shake my head and remember that it’s the parents who should be overseeing what their children eat at school. And it’s a solution that never fails.  Hate that your kid is being served fried food and overcooked vegetables? Pack them a more nutritious meal.  Annoyed that your kid is coming home hungry? Pack them a meal that will satisfy their needs. Angry that your kid refuses to eat these “new and improved” meals? Opt-out and pack them what they like to eat.  Worried your vegetarian kid might be served a slice of meatloaf?  Break out that little brown bag and fill it with soy cheese and baby carrots.

Sure, I’m not happy to hear yet another story about government controlling what and how our kids are eating, but there’s a solution to all of this: don’t rely on a government food program to feed your kid and don’t rely on the school to provide your kid snacks. These things should come from home and should be controlled by parents.