Schools to see more changes in snacks, meals as new federal regulations take effect

Children have lunch choices of a sandwich, salad, milk, an orange, baked apples and fried squash at Myrtle Beach Primary School. Photo by Janet Blackmon Morgan /
Children have lunch choices of a sandwich, salad, milk, an orange, baked apples and fried squash at Myrtle Beach Primary School. Photo by Janet Blackmon Morgan /

Students at Socastee High School are accustomed to buying Chick-fil-A sandwiches at school during their break, but the practice will stop in the fall due to the latest round of federal nutrition guidelines aimed at instilling healthy habits in students.

The Smart Snacks in School nutrition program, required by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, took effect July 1 and places more restrictions on snack foods and beverages sold to students during the school day. The new standards are expected to change some vending machine choices and specialty meal offerings for students, as well as goodies eaten at class celebrations and items sold for school fundraisers.

Some of the new regulations require snack items to have 200 calories or less. Sodium must be equal to or less than 230 milligrams, although that number will drop to 200 milligrams in 2016.

Entree calories must be equal to or less than 350 calories, and sodium must be equal to or less than 480 milligrams. Total fat in snacks and entrees must be equal to or less than 35 percent of calories, with saturated fat less than 10 percent of calories and zero grams of trans fat.

Socastee High students who liked their Chick-fil-A chicken sandwiches will be out of luck in the fall, as a regular sandwich contains 440 calories and 1,390 milligrams of sodium, according to the company’s website. The sandwich loss also will affect the school’s special education students, whose field trips were funded by the sales.

“They don’t meet the standards — we’re struggling with it,” said Socastee Principal Paul Browning. “The Chick-fil-A profits went directly to the field trips. We’ve got to raise some money, but we will figure something out.”

Many school groups raise money during and after school by selling food, such as the familiar World’s Finest Chocolate bars. Laura Farmer, director of food services for Horry County Schools, said the regulations apply only to what is sold at school, although that time frame is defined as from midnight until 30 minutes after school closes. Food sold at sports events are safe, for now, but even food that parents bring for classroom parties will be expected to fall within the new rules, said Teal Harding, HCS spokeswoman.

“The district is working on information for schools on how to ensure compliance with nutritional regulations for school celebrations, fundraisers and special events,” Harding said.

April Scott, principal at Forestbrook Middle School, said her school has tried to reduce the amount of fundraisers held during the school day, but many clubs — such as archery and robotics — raise money for a variety of activities. She said funds are used to keep kids from having to pay for things and to aid students who can’t afford some items, such as yearbooks.

“It’s going to be tough for a lot of us,” Scott said. “We will take a hit, but we’ll adjust. It’s going to make us be even more creative.”

Fat-fighting efforts

The U.S. Department of Agriculture launched major reforms for school meals in 2012 to help children avoid the risk of shorter life expectancies and health problems, which in turn can create a greater economic burden for states, the agency said. Childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years, and more than one-third of children and adolescents in 2012 were overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The number of overweight, obese and inactive high school students in South Carolina is up, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, which published the 2011 S.C. Obesity Burden Report. In 2013, 30.7 percent of S.C. high school students were overweight or obese, up from 29.6 percent in 2011.

About 57.2 percent of those students were not physically active at least 60 minutes a day, five or more days per week, up from 56.6 percent in 2011. Physical education regulations are still minimal, as students in kindergarten through grade five must have 60 minutes of P.E. and 90 minutes of planned physical activity per week, while P.E. must be included in the middle school curriculum, but there is no minimum time requirement. High school students must complete one unit of P.E. unless enrolled in junior ROTC.

“One thing that bothers me is that so much of the food is being blamed for obesity, but the kids are not getting their exercise,” Farmer said. “They go hand-in-hand.”

About 45.7 percent of S.C. high school students consumed less than one serving of fruits per day, while 45.6 percent consumed less than one serving of vegetables per day. Students no longer are able to refuse all healthy options in the food line, as 2012 regulations required students to take at least one, half-cup serving of a fruit or vegetable. This fall, that portion will increase to one cup.

Some of the new food requirements, such as those for acceptable grain items, are difficult — if not impossible — to balance, said Farmer, who is on the National School Nutrition Association Policy and Legislation Committee. The group meets with legislators on public policy for school nutrition and has asked for an extension on some of the more challenging regulations, she said, and expressed concerns about declining sales and food that is wasted when students are forced to take a fruit or vegetable, but can’t be forced to eat it.

“We’re feeding the trash cans,” Farmer said. “We don’t really know how much, but some students throw it away. We do know our cost is up because you’ve got to buy it to serve it. We’ve lost participation, and it’s hurting us financially.”

Student participation in the National School Lunch Program declined by 1.2 million students (or 3.7 percent) from 2010-11 through 2012-13 nationwide, after having increased steadily for many years, according to federal statistics. There are no restrictions for students who opt to bring their lunch, and fewer customers is a blow to food service departments, which are not meant to make money but to be self-sufficient.

“We’ve tried to encourage [legislators] to relax some of the regulations until we can get caught up with all the changes,” Farmer said. “We don’t disagree some changes need to be made, but we were making them and were doing well.”

Finding alternatives

The district has had a wellness policy for several years, said Farmer, who gradually changed school menus before the first USDA reforms were launched. Some of the food service targets are being phased in over a 10-year period, she said, while others take effect immediately.

“The biggest issue for us is the sodium issue with some of our specialty items, like pizzas and chicken sandwiches [that are offered a la carte],” Farmer said. “Some of our manufacturers knew this was coming, and we’re trying to find something the kids will want to eat, like wholegrain pizzas with reduced fat cheeses. We piloted some in high schools at the end of last year, and there are a few that are acceptable.”

It’s too soon to know any product swaps that will occur in student vending machines, which are mainly in the high schools, as the district just met with the vendor last week, said Joey Johnson, customer service manager at Canteen Vending Services. His three biggest sellers are Reduced Fat Cheez-Its, Quaker cheddar snacks and Pop Tarts, but he agreed that sodium will be the biggest obstacle, and he will have to check his warehouse to find items that comply.

Student vending machine beverages probably won’t be affected, as they already have a strict selection in the schools, said Chris Johnson with Pepsi Bottling Ventures LLC. Middle school students have only been able to buy Aquafina water, while high-schoolers, who are allowed to have caffeine and low-calorie beverages, can buy water, Diet Mountain Dew, Diet Pepsi and sugar-free orangeade and lemonade, he said.

Teachers and students, however, will have to adjust their cupcakes and other classroom treats accordingly, and the occasional bake sale during school hours will go by the wayside. Horry County educators say they will do their best to follow the new rules, whether they agree with all of them or not.

“I’ve never seen anybody come to high school thin and leave fat,” Browning said, “but we will sell what qualifies. It amounts to pine bark and flavored water, and it’s going to severely limit what kids will be able to buy during the school day.”