Takoma Park Middle School students have the option of eating a regular hot… (Juana Arias/The Washington…)
Over the din of sixth-grade lunch hour at Takoma Park Middle School, a student put down his juice and hollered: “He’s a genius! An ice cream sandwich-sandwich!”
At the other end of the table, a 12-year-old boy who had just finished a hamburger began shoving two ice cream sandwiches stacked together into his mouth.
Popsicles and a bag of chips are as easy to buy as a salad and an apple in the cafeteria of this school in Montgomery County. School officials say the snacks are healthy, meeting strict guidelines for fat, sugar and calories. But those assurances aren’t enough for some Montgomery parents, who worry about artificial dyes, processed foods and the occasional “ice cream sandwich-sandwich” sneaking into their kids’ diets.
“It’s the basic mom question, which is, ‘Should this kid be eating this at all?’ ” said Karen Devitt, co-founder of Real Food for Kids — Montgomery.
Across the country, school lunch directors, nutritionists and parents like Devitt are asking the same question as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) crafts new federal nutrition standards limiting sugar, fat and sodium for school snacks and drinks. The rules would be the first update to school snack guidelines in more than 30 years and would come as first lady Michelle Obama continues to take aim at childhood obesity. About one-third of children in the United States are either overweight or obese.
The mandates will be controversial. School districts worry that changes to snack guidelines will reduce food sales that help keep cafeteria budgets balanced. They also say the rules could limit some children from eating enough calories because recent federal rules shrank the size of school meals.
Others say the proposed guidelines don’t go far enough. High-fat potato chips, candy bars and sugary sodas will be out, but flavored milks or low-fat yogurts with nearly the same sugar content as certain chocolate bars could be in.
One person’s healthy snack is junk food in the eyes of another.
USDA officials say the intent of the proposed standards is not to limit popular snack items but to provide healthier options for students.
“Parents and teachers work hard to instill healthy eating habits in our kids, and this proposal will ensure they have healthy options throughout school cafeterias, vending machines and snack bars,” a USDA spokesman said.
“There’s definitely a balance to be struck there between healthfulness and keeping it appealing for kids,” said Lindsey Turner, a health psychologist and research scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “I don’t think it’s an either or proposition.”
Turner co-authored a report released last year that found that nearly half of all public and private elementary school students could buy snacks in schools. Much of the food was sugary, fatty or salty with little nutritional value.
Proponents of changes from the USDA say that easy access is exactly why the federal government should create new rules. At least 39 states and individual school systems have nutrition guidelines for snacks, but the standards vary.
“It’s all over the map,” said Jessica Donze Black, director of the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project of the Pew Charitable Trusts. “There are some states in which the majority of schools are still selling regular chips and chocolate candy, and there are states where almost none are doing that.”
A majority of middle and high schools don’t offer fruit or vegetables in snack bars or vending machines, according to a report from the Pew project.
J. Justin Wilson, a senior research analyst at the Center for Consumer Freedom, said some school guidelines are so strict that students have skirted the rules by selling candy bars and soda from out of their lockers and cars.
“The foods cannot fall below a certain minimum threshold of being palatable,” Wilson said. Otherwise, “the healthfulness of the food is lost because the kids aren’t eating.”
The proposed minimum USDA guidelines would generally require snack foods to contain fewer than 200 calories a serving, with no more than 35 percent of the calories or weight coming from sugar or fat and less than 200 milligrams of sodium a portion. The guidelines would prohibit trans fats and require that less than 10 percent of snack calories come from saturated fats.
They would also require that snack foods be either a fruit, a vegetable, a dairy product, a protein food or a “whole-grain rich” grain product or contain at least 10 percent of the daily value of a nutrient such as calcium, potassium or vitamin D.
The beverage guidelines would eliminate sugary soda. Students would be able to buy water, low-fat plain milk, and non-fat plain or flavored milk. Juices would also have to be 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice with portion limits.