February 12, 2013

Finally, USDA Issues New Rules on Competitive Foods in Schools

Julia Wolfson

Julia Wolfson

CLF-Lerner Fellow

Center for a Livable Future

Vending machines in schools?

Ever since the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act passed in 2010, we’ve been waiting to see what USDA will do about vending machines in schools. Now, finally, the agency has proposed new regulations on these foods, and the regulations aim to make the contents healthier.

Even though the vending machines might be in school cafeterias, the food is considered to be “outside of” the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), and is therefore called “competitive food.” Competitive foods encompass any food sold in vending machines, school stores or a la carte in the cafeteria that is not part of the NSLP. The new regulations can be found here, and are open to public comment for the next 60 days.

As part of the same Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act, the USDA issued regulations for the NSLP, and they are being implemented this school year. The new NSLP regulations increased requirements for fruits and vegetables, specified minimum requirements for dark and leafy greens, beans, and red/orange vegetables as well as grains (including whole grains). The regulations also required that all milk be low or non-fat, and unflavored. Go here for a comparison between the previous and current NSLP regulations.

Passing and implementing the school lunch regulations saw its share of controversy. We all remember the pizza counts as a vegetable scandal when USDA proposed the new standards, and members of Congress bowed to special interests from the food industry. And, since they have been implemented this year, the new meals were met with complaints from students and food service directors alike. Some students were not fans of the new healthy meals, while food service directors had trouble complying with the protein and grain maximums in the regulations. In response, in December 2012, the USDA relaxed that specific part of the regulation for this school year.

The new proposed rule on competitive foods would be a huge step forward in making the school food environment healthier and setting an example for healthy eating. The rules would affect all foods sold on school campuses at any time of the day and would put in place limits on calories, fat, sodium, and sugar content of both foods and beverages. The beverage regulations will prove especially contentious with strict limits on what can be sold in elementary and middle schools (only plain water, plain low fat milk, plain unflavored non-fat milk and 100 percent fruit/vegetable juice). In high schools, other beverages are allowed, but within strict calorie limits. Allowable drinks would include 20-ounce servings of calorie-free, flavored or unflavored carbonated drinks, and 12-ounce servings of other beverages with either 40 or 50 calories (or less) per 8-ounce serving, or 60-75 calories (or less) per 12-ounce servings. USDA is accepting comments on which of these calories limits should be implemented.

These new regulations have the potential to greatly benefit children’s health by eliminating the unhealthy, energy-dense snack foods, sodas and other high-calorie drinks that are so ubiquitous on school (especially high school) campuses in this country. To see some of the potential benefits to children’s health, see this health impact assessment by Health Impact Project, funded by Pew Charities and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. We’ve started to see some gains in the fight against childhood obesity; obesity rates in preschoolers in NYC dropped recently, a change that was attributed to new healthy food interventions as part of the WIC program. But what happens when these kids start going to public schools dominated by heavily processed, energy-dense snack foods and high calorie beverages? Healthy competitive foods are essential to supporting the NSLP changes and truly making the food children eat in school healthier. There is a lot of attention being paid to making school food healthier, and competitive foods are an essential variable in that equation. Please, submit a comment, write your Congressperson in support of these new rules, and help make sure these new regulations on competitive food sales don’t get watered down by industry lobbying. You can find and contact your representatives here or here.

Photo credit: Julia Wolfson 2013.


  1. Posted by Lisa Childers

    Hi Julia! Lisa from the bookstore here! Loved the article and good luck with all of your studies!

  2. Posted by Lisa Bailey-Davis

    Kids should have a consistent message a school. If food is available, it should pass some measure of healthfulness. Sure, kids will bring in food and drinks that don’t comply. Middle schools will likely continue to be a hot ground for black market candy sales and stashes of sugary beverages. But this might subside as the middle-schoolers who paid for sports equipment and other goodies with their disposable cash matriculate into high school. Will this make a dent in childhood obesity? Maybe for elementary and younger, but for other kids who’ve been exposed to the competitive foods, not likely. These kids already consumed most of their energy-dense calories at home or away from school. School availability helped to make these choices desirable and socially acceptable.

  3. Excellent, informative, and succinct summary of the new regulations! About time our elected leaders acknowledge schools as one of the most powerful sites for behavior change.

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