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.
A 2012 study published in the journal Pediatrics found that children in school systems operating under strict laws regulating the nutrition of snack foods consumed less fat, sugar and calories and were less likely to be obese by the end of middle school. Children on average consume 30 to 50 percent of their calories in school.
Some school food services directors say that guidelines that are too strict could hurt their budgets. Often, the amount school systems spend on providing students with free and reduced-price meals is more than what they get reimbursed for from the federal government. Snack sales help offset that.
“The revenue generated helps our bottom line,” said Marla Caplon, director of food and nutrition services for the Montgomery school system, which serves more than 70,000 meals a day.
In fiscal 2010, Montgomery schools made $6.8 million on a la carte and snack sales, about 17 percent of the district’s $40.3 million revenue collections for the department of food and nutrition services.
Montgomery and other school systems in the Washington region have similar or stricter guidelines than those the USDA is proposing. Public schools in the District ban flavored milk with added sweeteners or artificial flavors. And at the request of parent activists, the Fairfax County school system has cut the amount of artificial dyes, preservatives and other additives from food by 80 percent.
JoAnne Hammermaster, president of Real Food for Kids, the umbrella organization that launched in Fairfax before the Montgomery parents group formed, said it’s not about eliminating snacks from schools but finding ways to give students healthy options.
“We have a captive audience when our kids are at school,” Hammermaster said. “It’s a perfect opportunity to teach them and give them examples of how to live a healthier lifestyle.”
Hammermaster said that the USDA’s proposed snack food guidelines are a good first step but that it’s important for parents such as Devitt in Montgomery to keep pushing for higher standards.
“We offer a decent lunch program, but if pizza is still considered a vegetable by government standards, then we have to take that extra step beyond just what the USDA is saying,” Hammermaster said. “Even if the Pop-Tart has the whole grain, it’s still a Pop-Tart.”
At Takoma Park Middle School students could buy everything from low-fat yogurts, apples and milk to gummy snacks, crispy rice treats, chips and juice smoothies. Other schools in the district sell 100 percent fruit juices, in which an 8-ounce serving has as many calories and almost as much sugar as a 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola. The juice, however, has vitamins and other nutritional value, unlike the soda.
In the cafeteria at lunch hour, sixth-grader Austin Axenfeld’s teeth and lips were stained blue. He had just finished a berry fruit-juice slush and sat a few tables away from the boy who had the “ice cream sandwich-sandwich.”
“I usually get the green apple soda,” Axenfeld said as he finished popping gummy snacks into his mouth.
Austin’s mother, Cheryl, said she has been teaching her 12-year-old son about reading nutrition labels and the problems with eating too many sweets.
“He loves the gummy snacks,” Axenfeld said. “He thinks they’re healthy because they have the word ‘fruit’ in them.”
Despite the school system’s nutritional standards, Axenfeld said she doesn’t like that her son has access to smoothies and gummy candy at school.
She also has to take extra care to monitor the purchases he makes because Austin’s school allows parents to use an automatic debit system to buy food.
“He’s by himself with an unlimited spending account and a whole bunch of sugary food in front of him,” Axenfeld said. “Kid in a candy shop is pretty much accurate.”