A U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) official said the agency is expecting to unveil its proposed nutritional guidelines for school food and beverages sold outside of meals “very shortly.”
But in typical Washington fashion, she stopped short of specifying an exact time frame for the release.
Nancy Lyons, a senior policy analyst with the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, told attendees of the National Food Policy Conference in Washington late last week that the agency is working to draft guidelines that are “reasonable” and “practical.”
The much-anticipated guidelines will specifically apply to “competitive foods,” defined as foods and beverages sold in schools but outside of meals. Examples include a la carte items, and products sold in vending machines and student stores.
Lyons said the agency is aiming to implement the new guidelines by the 2014-15 school year. “We are very anxious to get [the guidelines] published,” she said.
The public likely will have 90 days to comment on the proposed guidelines, Lyons confirmed, although she joked that the period be shortened to “90 minutes” to expedite the process.
Lyons appeared on a breakout panel that was moderated by PreventObesity.net Leader Tracy Fox, who said she has been working on improving school food since her children were in elementary school. “And since I just attended my son’s college graduation last week, the issue hasn’t gone away,” she joked.
Fox isn’t alone. PreventObesity.net Leader Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, noted during the session that the idea of setting standards for competitive foods was highly controversial when she started working on the issue 10 years ago. Some school officials — and the food industry — feared nutritional guidelines would mean a drop in revenue, Wootan recalled.
But as health-minded schools across the country began to adopt competitive foods standards of their own and didn’t see much impact on revenue, other school officials began to worry less about the cost of implementing nutrition standards. Even the industry followed, developing healthier products that schools could sell.
Food and beverage makers have reformulated more than 20,000 products in recent years to make them healthier, said Beth Johnson, founder of Food Directions LLC, a government relations firm that specializes in food policy. The new competitive foods guidelines likely will bring more reformulations, she predicted.
“There will be innovation. This kind of thing drives innovation,” Johnson added. “It’s just a question of how quickly this can be done.”
Some industry officials would like to see nutritional guidelines released, because it would provide a basic primer for developing products, Wootan noted. Right now, nutritional standards vary so much between individual schools that it is hard for food and beverage makers to develop consistent and cost-effective product lines.
Becky Domokos-Bays, director of school nutrition services for Alexandria City Public Schools, said making sure students have healthy vending machine options is important, as so many stay at school well into the evening for extracurricular activities.
“I want them to have something that’s good, that’s going to carry them through until dinner,” she said.
Don't miss the rest of the Inside Track, including a story on the top 10 food trends and a Q&A with PreventObesity.net's first Leader from Wyoming.