New Rules May Curb Classroom Junk Food

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The season of junk-food-laden classroom holiday parties is upon us. And while some parents see all the cake, candy and salty snacks as a harmless indulgence during a festive season, others object to any unhealthy food in the classroom.

Now the federal government is stepping in to help address the issue of classroom food. Federal school nutrition rules from the Department of Agriculture approved this past summer now require school districts participating in federal lunch or breakfast programs to come up with a nutritional standard for all foods and drinks offered to children at school, including those served by parents at classroom parties and treats awarded by teachers as prizes for a correct answer.

The new standards won’t go into effect until the 2017-18 school year, but right now, school district wellness committees around the country are debating which foods and drinks, if any, should be barred at the classroom door.

While it’s too soon to say how most districts will respond to the federal mandate, there’s room for improvement in many classrooms. According to a national survey of school district wellness policies conducted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, most districts don’t have standards for the foods and drinks served at classroom parties. Although nearly one in four districts discourage teachers from giving food as a reward, only 13 percent prohibit the practice.

One option for districts is to simply adopt the so-called “Smart Snacks” rules that govern snacks and drinks sold to children through vending machines and school fund-raisers. The rules went into effect in 2014, and are familiar territory to most school districts. Adopting the Smart Snacks rules for classroom food would also steer parents toward store-bought items instead of homemade, reducing the risk of harm to food-allergic children.

“Many will use Smart Snacks because that’s what they’re used to,” said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

But depending on a given community’s nutritional ethos, the Smart Snacks rules could be seen as too lenient or too stringent. Unless otherwise exempted, homemade birthday cupcakes would be out, but many highly processed snacks, including some with considerable amounts of added sugar, would still be permissible. For instance, a Trix cereal bar, with 150 calories and more than 50 percent whole grain oats would pass muster, even though the second and third ingredients are corn syrup and sugar.

At the other end of the spectrum, districts could set a lax standard that intentionally does little or nothing to change the status quo. After the Smart Snacks rules were adopted, for instance, some states took advantage of a loophole to allow frequent sales of junk food for school fund-raising to continue.

But that may not happen this time, since the federal rules require a wide range of stakeholders, including parents, to participate in the drafting process.

“Wellness policies won’t be decided by the state, but instead by local committees that will include teachers, school officials and members of the community,” Ms. Wootan said.

The new federal rules do require each school to appoint a staff member to help oversee the new healthy eating rules. And while states will audit a district’s wellness policy every three years, they will review only a district’s goals and its plan to implement them.

In other words, says Ms. Wootan, “They won’t be going into every classroom on Halloween to see what’s happening.”

Parents can also have a voice in decisions made at their child’s school. Individual schools have the option to institute classroom policies that are stricter than their district’s standard. “If parents at a given school really want to take this issue on, they could,” Ms. Wootan said. The National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity has created a useful clearinghouse of wellness policy guidance and resources from leading public health organizations.

Jodi Helman, who used to live in Stamford, Conn., said she believes more rules are needed. She said her daughter’s previous elementary school took a decidedly lax approach to classroom food.

“The amount of junk food was outrageous,” she recalls. “Candy was given out daily as rewards. The classrooms would have at least one party a week, sometimes two if it fell during a holiday.”

But her family recently moved to Barrington, R.I., where their new school has “a zero-tolerance policy” toward unhealthy food in the classroom.

“No candy rewards, no cupcakes for birthdays, no holiday parties with food,” she says. “The kids in Barrington live a healthy lifestyle, without even knowing it.”