Healthy focus for USDA’s new competitive foods regs

Foods sold outside reimbursable meals must meet nutrition standards, including calorie, sugar, sodium and saturated fat limits.

Feb. 4—In a new attempt to promote healthier eating in schools, the USDA has proposed new regulations targeting competitive foods, including those sold in à la carte lines, vending machines and school stores. These regulations will be open for public comment until April 9th.

For the purpose of the proposed rules, competitive foods is defined as “all food and beverages sold to students on the school campus during the school day, other than those meals reimbursable under program authorized by the NSLP and the CNA (Child Nutrition Act of 1966).” The school day is defined as the midnight before to 30 minutes after the end of the official school day. School campus is defined as “all areas of the property under the jurisdiction of the school that are accessible to students during the school day.”

The standards represent a minimum that schools must meet. The USDA does not discourage districts from implementing stricter standards, and the agency recognizes that many districts are already imposing tougher nutritional requirements.

These rules do not affect items brought from home, food served during classroom parties and items sold after hours at school sporting events. There are some restrictions for fundraisers, however.

Here are the requirements that competitive foods must meet.

Competitive food items: To be allowable under the proposed rules, an item must meet the following criteria.

• It must meet all of the proposed food nutrient standards (listed below);
• The item must be a grain product that contains 50% or more whole grains by weight or have whole grains as the first ingredient OR be a fruit, vegetable, diary product, protein food (meat, beans, poultry, seafood, eggs, nuts, seeds, etc.); or
• The item must contain 10% of the daily value of a naturally occurring nutrient of public health concern (calcium, potassium, vitamin D or dietary fiber; or
• The item must be a combination food that contains at least ¼ cup of a fruit or vegetable.
• If water is the first listed ingredient, the second ingredient must be one of the above.

Note: Fresh, frozen and canned vegetables with no added ingredients except water, or in the case of fruit, packed in 100% juice or extra light syrup, are exempt from all proposed nutrient standards (listed below).

Competitive foods must also meet additional nutrient standards.

Grains: Grain items must include 50% or more whole grains by weight or have whole grains as the first ingredient.

Calories and fats: An item’s total fat must be less than or equal to 35% of calories. There are several exceptions to this rule, including reduced-fat cheese, seafood with no added fat, products consisting of only dried fruit with nuts and/or seeds with no added nutritive sweeteners or fat and nuts, seeds and nut/seed butters. The exception, however, does not extend to combination products that contain nuts, nut butters or seed butters with other ingredients, such as peanut butter and crackers or trail mix. Snack items have a limit of 200 calories per portion, including any accompaniments (see below for rule on accompaniments). Non-NSLP/SBP entrée items have a calorie limit of 350. Saturated fat must be less than 10% of calories; reduced-fat cheese is exempted. There must also be zero grams of trans fat, as stated on the nutrition label.

Sodium: The USDA also proposed sodium standards. For snack and side items, the limit is 200 milligrams. For entrée items that are not National School Lunch or School Breakfast Program entrées, the limit is 480 milligrams per portion.

Exemptions with NSLP items sold à la carte: In several areas of the proposed rules, the USDA has offered alternatives to a rule. One of those areas deals with exemptions to the food requirements for NSLP/SBP entrées and side dishes sold à la carte. The first option would subject these items only to fat and sugar restrictions, The second option exempts any items served as part of the NSLP/SBP, except grain-based desserts, from all standards. There are also two proposals regarding timing of service associated with the exemption. The first allows an exemption to the proposed nutrient standards on the same day the item is served in the school meal program. The second is an exemption of proposed nutrient standards for an item served within four operating days of service in the school meals program.

Sugar: Another area where the USDA offered alternatives is sugar levels. The first proposal is that items must have less than or equal to 35% of calories; the second is less than 35% of weight. There are exceptions to the sugar limits. Fruits and vegetables packed in juice or extra-light syrup and certain yogurts are not covered by this rule. There are several exceptions to this proposal. Those include: fresh, frozen and canned fruits/vegetables with no added sweeteners, except for fruits packed in 100% juice or extra-light syrup; dried whole fruits/vegetables, dried whole fruit/vegetable pieces and dried dehydrated fruits/vegetables with no added nutritive sweeteners; and low-fat/non-fat yogurt with less than 30 grams of sugar per eight ounces.

Beverages: Schools may serve plain water, plain low-fat milk, plain or flavored fat-free milk and milk alternatives permitted by the NSLP/SBP and 100% fruit/vegetable juice. Caffeine—with the exception of naturally occurring substances—may only be served in the high school. Beverage portion sizes are the only aspect of these regs that have different designations for age/grade groups.

Here’s a breakdown of what beverages can be sold by grade level:

Elementary schools:
• Plain water
• Low-fat milk, plain (no more than 8 ounces)
• Non-fat milk, plain or flavored (no more than 8 ounces), including nutritionally equivalent milk alternative as permitted by the school meal requirements
• 100 percent fruit/vegetable juice (no more than 8 ounces)

Middle schools:
• Plain water
• Low-fat milk, plain (no more than 12 ounces)
• Non-fat milk, plain or flavored (no more than 12 ounces), including nutritionally equivalent milk alternative as permitted by the school meal requirements
• 100% fruit/vegetable juice (no more than 12 ounces)

High schools:
• Plain water
• Low-fat milk, plain (no more than 12 ounces)
• Non-fat milk, plain or flavored (no more than 12 ounces), including nutritionally equivalent milk alternative as permitted by the school meal requirements
• 100% fruit/vegetable juice (no more than 12 ounces)
• Calorie-free, flavored or unflavored, caffeinated or non-caffeinated carbonated water (not more than 20 ounces), but not during meal service periods

There are two proposals regarding other caffeinated or non-caffeinated beverages in the rule. The difference is the calorie limit. Neither option can be served during the meal period. The first option allows for no more than 40 calories per 8-ounce serving or 60 calories per 12-ounce servings. The second option allows for 50 calories per 8-ounce serving or 75 calories per 12-ounce serving.

Accompaniments: Items that are an accompaniment to other food items—salad dressing, for example—must be proportioned and offered only when food is sold. These accompaniments must also be included in the nutrient profile as part of the item served and meet all proposed standards.

Fundraisers: The sale of food items that meet the proposed nutritional requirements will not be limited in any way. The proposed standards would not apply to items sold on school grounds during school hours for “a limited number: of fundraisers. The definition of “limited” has yet to be determined. The USDA has proposed two options. In the first, state agencies can set the number of exempted fundraisers. The second allows state agencies the same option, however, this is subject to USDA approval.

Other fundraising through vending, school stores, snack bars and à la carte sales will be subject to the nutrition standards for competitive foods.

For more on the new proposed regs, visit foodservicedirector.com.