New nutrition standards may make students healthier but hurt the bottom line

pseligson@newsobserver.comJuly 19, 2013 

  • Childhood obesity

    According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 15 percent of adolescents in North Carolina are overweight and an additional 13 percent are obese. The new nutrition standards are aimed at reducing these numbers. To read more about the standards, go to

Eighth-grader Hannah Edwards often brings her lunch from home because she’s not a fan of the cafeteria food at East Cary Middle School. But she’s happy to supplement her meal with a snack from school; she bought dessert and chips recently.

“We don’t really buy school food because it’s disgusting, but the snack food is good,” Hannah said.

Starting next year, though, new federal nutrition standards aim to make school snacks healthier. But history shows that when the food becomes healthier, kids buy less. And with 20 percent of Wake County’s school food service budget relying on the sale of snack foods, that could cause a revenue problem, officials say.

Marilyn Moody, senior director of child nutrition services for the Wake County school system, said $10 million of the department’s $50 million yearly budget comes from snack food sales. These snacks are the foods and drinks found in vending machines or sold as extras – “a la carte items” in school nutrition-speak – on the lunch line. The rest of the revenue comes almost entirely from federal reimbursements and students paying for meals.

“That’s why a la carte items are important to us, because we want to hold the price of the entire lunch – the price that the paying customers have to pay – as low as we possibly can to still break even,” Moody said.

East Cary Middle’s cafeteria is like others in the county. As students walk through the lunch line, they first pick out milk and then serve themselves an entrée, fruits and vegetables – all part of the standard and nutritionally balanced lunch. But between there and the cash registers are the a la carte items – vegetable packs, chips, pudding, ice cream and cookies. Prices typically range from 50 cents to a dollar for the goodies.

New rules limit calories, more

Last month, the federal Department of Agriculture released the “Smart Snacks in School” interim nutrition standards, which must be met by July 2014. Wake County has already taken voluntary steps to gradually make snack foods healthier, Moody said. But as the food became healthier, students bought less and revenue from snack items dropped from $13 million of a $48 million budget in 2008 to today’s $10 million. The county made up for the loss by raising lunch prices 25 cents two years ago.

Limiting unhealthy snacks is worth the price, said Liz McCabe, president of the Parent Teachers Association at East Cary. “I would be fine with raising the (lunch) price in order to get the healthier option. I think it’s needed.”

Currently, school lunch costs $2 at elementary schools and $2.25 at middle and high schools, Moody said.

The new standards will come with an additional 6 cents in federal subsidies per meal, which might help balance out the anticipated loss in snack revenues. But at this point officials said they don’t know whether it will be enough.

The revenue problems are not limited to Wake County, though. Snack foods generate $325 million in revenue across the state, said Lynn Harvey, section chief of child nutrition services at the state Department of Public Instruction.

“Any program that begins to erode those sales could potentially be problematic for the state and for local food makers, because they’re going to need alternative revenues (from) somewhere,” she said.

Additionally, the new regulations will present a logistical challenge for school districts across the state, Harvey said. Any time regulations change the nutritional requirements of food, vendors have to either change the recipe to comply or school districts have to find new food to serve. Some districts could have to change out multiple foods in just a year’s time.

“Thank goodness for the year implementation,” Harvey said. “It’s truly going to take us a year to sort it out.”

The new rules include limits on calories, fat and sodium, as well as minimum requirements on containing either grain or an amount of a specific food group such as fruits or vegetables.

Previously, there have been no caloric standards on snack items, Moody said. But now they must be less than or equal to 200 calories. Though Wake County had already achieved this for most snacks because of local nutrition goals, other requirements, especially a new focus on sodium and rules for a la carte items, will mean retesting many foods to see whether they comply.

No food list yet

Moody said she doesn’t yet know which foods will stay and which will go. Elementary schools are already in line with the standards, but middle and high schools are not.

High schools especially could see significant changes.

Additionally, Moody said some of the new rules could be confusing for children. Entrée items sold by themselves now have new requirements, such as a 350 calorie limit. But a whole meal – the entrée and the sides – is around 850 calories in high school, which means students could be served certain items if they are part of a meal but not be allowed to buy those items individually, Moody said.

Moody was also disappointed the standards didn’t reach further – they don’t affect foods sold after school, such as at sporting events, or the foods, often candy, sold through fundraising events.

Harvey said she is concerned about the calorie limits of the new regulations. Some students are growing or have athletic practices and need higher-calorie snacks and a la carte entrees , she said.

The new rules are an interim ruling and could change depending on feedback.

‘The time has come’

Despite concerns, Harvey said the new rules are a step in the right direction.

“The time has come that we have to do something to focus on children’s health and that we have to make nutrition part of preventative medicine,” she said.

Harvey added that one of the biggest issues will be pleasing students while changing nutrition.

“Students have to like the foods they’re offered in order to eat them,” she said.

Hannah, the East Cary Middle student who bought snacks to supplement her packed lunch, said that if the school limits the snack foods or makes them taste bad, she’ll just bring some from home.

Kristi King, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, said even though students can get around the new rules by bringing unhealthy foods from home, the rules still set an important example of what’s healthy.

“Sometimes (students) may not have that example at home,” she said. “So having it in the school is a great first step.”

Research shows that elementary-age kids who are exposed to healthier snacks actually change their eating habits, said Barry Popkin, a distinguished professor of nutrition at UNC.

But, Popkin said, legislation like this isn’t enough to fight childhood obesity and diabetes.

“Most of what kids eat comes from home,” he said. “This is not going to change what parents do. This is only a piece of the pie but we’re hoping we’ll change norms and we’re hoping that parents start to pay more and more attention.”

Ericson Gomez, a seventh-grader at East Cary Middle, said he wants officials to stop focusing on snack foods, which he called a waste of money.

“Just make the food better,” he said.

Helen Everitt, a counselor at the school, said the new snack standards are absolutely needed, especially because she also sees students buy more than one snack at a time.

“If they make unhealthy food choices now, it will have an impact later on,” she said.

Seligson: 919-829-8983

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