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School Districts Ready For New Year With Healthier Snacks

Michele R. Simon
Cheetos advertises its reformulated snack food that meets new USDA health standards, at the School Nutrition Association conference earlier this month.

Clif Bars are gone. There's no more beef jerky, and the chip selection in the Greeley-Evans Weld County School District 6's vending machines will look a little different in 2014.

The district, along with schools across Colorado and the nation, is implementing new U.S. Department of Agriculture healthy snack food guidelines that went into effect July 1.

"I wouldn’t say that they are a lot different, but we definitely had to eliminate some items," said Kara Sample, assistant director for nutrition services for the school district.

While most people might think of a Clif Bar as healthy, the snacks have too many calories to be considered healthy under the new federal rules, aimed at improving the nutritional quality of snacks sold to school-age children. Beef jerky contained too much salt. So those items are being replaced with other bars or reformulated packaged foods, said Sample.

Credit Greeley-Evans School District 6
A branding item for the Greeley-Evans School District 6 healthy snack program

Big food manufacturers track federal regulations closely, and many were able to meet the guidelines simply by shifting the composition or even the size of their product, said Sample. The rule requires snacks to have 200 calories or less and meet sodium, sugar, and fat guidelines.

"By July 1, Kelloggs came out with a Rice Krispie Treat, believe it or not, that meets these new regulations."

So teens can still buy a marshmallow-and-cereal treat at one of the district's 14 vending machines, which are only in high schools or teacher lounges.

Other items simply got smaller packages, like calorie-dense nuts, and chip ingredients were also reformulated to meet sodium guidelines. Those craving a salty snack can now buy three types of Baked Lays four varieties of Chex Mix, nuts or sunflower seeds in district vending machines.

One of the changes causing controversy nationally is the potential limits the snack guidelines pose to school fundraisers.

Between the hours of midnight and 30 minutes after the last school bell, all snacks sold at the school have to meet the healthy snack criteria. Some schools have worried this will cut into valuable money-raising efforts like candy bar sales.

The potential effect on school fundraisers is a concern among many school administrators, said Sample.

Traditional candy-based fundraisers "bring in a lot of money for the schools. So it really is a paradigm shift for them in terms of what are they going to replace this with, and how are they going to bring in the money," said Sample.

Her office is working with the Greeley-Evans schools to develop alternative fundraisers that do not rely on selling junk food to students, such as walk-a-thons or read-a-thons.

States are allowed to exempt school fundraisers from the guidelines; as the issue has become politicized, those exemptions have become a flash point. Georgia recently made headlines when it decided to offer 30 exemptions per school per year, denouncing the new healthy snack rules as "federal overreach." Other states have a handful, or zero. In Colorado, schools get three exemptions per year.

Jeremy West, director of nutrition services for the district, said that a lot of fundraisers also happen outside of or after school, and those will not be affected. He also said that the district had already started to phase in healthy drinks and snacks, so although it had to change to meet the new guidelines, it was already moving in a healthy direction.

"The beverage piece was easy for us," since the school had already eliminated sodas and high sugar drinks from its vending machines, said West.

West and Sample did note that the guidelines are written in such a way that some foods that are generally considered healthy in moderate quantities, would not meet the guidelines.

"So it's interesting the way these guidelines play out. And I think everyone would agree that yes, cheese is high in fat, but at the same time it's a healthy snack, high in calcium," said Sample.

Others have criticized some of the new snack items (Cheetos, for example) simply as "reformulated" junk food.

Sample said that it will take time for schools to overcome what has become an American preference for processed food.

"In a school district, if we start with the kindergartners and we feed them healthy food from the time they start school, by the time they are high schoolers they are not going to know the difference."

Stephanie Paige Ogburn has been reporting from Colorado for more than five years, primarily from the Western Slope.
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