With the passage of the Healthy, Hungry-Free Kids Act of 2010, in addition to improving school meals, Congress required the U.S. Department of Agriculture to update nearly nonexistent nutrition standards on so-called competitive foods. These are foods sold outside the school meal program, including fast food items sold alongside the reimbursable lunches, and soft drinks and junk food sold in vending machines, school stores, fundraisers, and the like. As I wrote about in my book, the issue of unhealthy beverages and junk food in schools has been a contentious one for years, mostly being fought at the state and local levels. While it’s commendable that the federal government is now taking up the issue, I have some serious concerns about the feasibility of an approach that essentially endorses healthier junk food while allowing corporations continued unfettered access to children in schools. That’s why I have submitted comments on behalf of the Center for Food Safety, endorsed by several other organizations and experts, to ask that USDA assist schools with eliminating fast food, vending, and other competitive foods from schools altogether. Below are a few highlights from those comments. (You can read the entire document here.) Competitive foods financially undermine the school meal program Congress’ clear intent with the federally subsidized school lunch and breakfast programs is to ensure millions of schoolchildren are well-nourished. However, the ongoing presence of competitive food in schools undermines these programs financially. Indeed the very term “competitive” underscores this problem. According to school chef Ann Cooper: “Students should be eating healthy complete meals; the opportunity to opt-out by purchasing competitive food is actually counter to the mission of the National School Lunch Program.” Indeed, a report from the Illinois Public Health Institute found that while “strengthening nutrition standards for competitive foods are associated with increased participation in the USDA reimbursable meal program, schools that completely eliminated competitive food sales tended to see the greatest increases in school meal participation rates.” Competitive foods at school meals creates stigma for low-income children The presence of so-called “a la carte” items on the school meal line sets up a demographic divide between those who can afford these items and those who cannot. Eliminating any competing school meal items would avoid this stigma, making a more positive eating environment for all schoolchildren. School food expert and sociology professor Janet Poppendieck agrees that unless competitive foods are eliminated entirely, that stigma will persist: “Unless the new rules convince schools to do away with the competitive foods altogether, however, a la carte items and other competitive foods will continue to undermine the National School Lunch Program, because a la carte service stigmatizes the federal lunch.” Slightly healthier junk food is still unhealthy, sends the wrong message USDA’s narrow focus on nutrients such as grams of fat and sugar will still result in highly processed junk food with only slightly improved nutritional profiles. For example, reduced-fat corn chips and baked potato chips are still junk foods with almost zero nutritional value. Moreover, lower calorie soft drinks such as Diet Coke also offer zero nutrition and have no place in a child’s diet. With UDSA essentially giving such highly processed foods the “government seal of approval,” future efforts to remove such products from schools will become even more challenging. The food industry will very likely point to the federal nutrition standards on competitive foods as the “new normal” in schools, potentially undermining advocates who wish to rid schools of these unhealthy processed products altogether. Competitive food allows junk food companies to market to children Maintaining the presence of fast food, soft drink, and junk food companies in public schools sends all the wrong messages to children. These companies are eager to sell their products in schools because they want to get kids hooked at an early age, to ensure brand loyalty for life. A vending machine that promotes Diet Coke versus Coke exploits children all the same. More important than the nutritional content are the branding messages that these products carry. Food corporations are happy to comply with minor tweaks to their products to ensure their brands remain in schools. With these proposed nutrition guidelines, USDA is helping to secure the inappropriate, exploitative, and harmful role these companies currently have in targeting children, in and out of schools. To both maximize the economic benefit to schools and as well as protect schoolchildren, USDA should assist and provide resources to help schools that want to eliminate competitive foods, as opposed to simply placing a healthy halo and government seal of approval upon highly processed and nutritionally void products from companies seeking only to target children with their brands. In addition to the Center for Food Safety, the following organizations and individuals signed on to the full comments:

  • Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood
  • Corporate Accountability International
  • Dietitians for Professional Integrity
  • Food Democracy Now!
  • Food and Water Watch
  • New York Coalition for Healthy School Food
  • Nutritional Therapy Association
  • Organic Consumers Association
  • Reese Richman, LLP
  • Andy Bellatti, MS, RD, Registered Dietitian
  • Ann Cooper, Founder, Food Family Farming Foundation
  • Nancy Huehnergarth, Food Policy Consultant
  • Frances Moore Lappé and Anna Lappé, Small Planet Institute
  • Janet Poppendieck, PhD, author, Free for All: Fixing School Food in America and Professor Emerita, Hunter College

This article originally appeared on the Center for Food Safety‘s website.

  • husna

    Nice article Michelle. I would like to add my opinion on a few points:

    All Children love ala carte items, especially if it is a food item that is from a local favorite fast food/restaurant. Cutting out these food items from school cafeterias is not the solution to the problem. From my understanding, the USDA meal reimbursment program was originally designed to meet the dietary needs of low income children. So why should not the USDA work on policies to include these meals as reimbursable ones? After all these children whose families lack the financial resources to eat at a restaurant of their choice have a right to a nutritionally balanced “meal of choice” at least in a school setting. Perhaps the local restaurant affiliates that provide ala carte items to education institutes can work on the calorie/fat content to meet the requirements of the given law. This way we not only provide children a meal of choice, but help eliminate destigmatization in the given environment.

    From a food safety perspective, I am in alliance with the food industry on keeping packaged food (other than soda, candies, cupcakes) as part of competitive foods accessible to school children. I have a logical reason for my viewpoint. The packaged foods are not only shelf stable, but have been professionally developed in a food processing plant. When combined with the right food items, they can be nutritionally balanced to meet the dietary needs of children.

    Additionally, from a food security perspective, in the event of a lockdown or a natural calamity (earthquake/hurricane),these foods can be readily accessible by children/staff/parent volunteers at the given setting as they don’t undergo spoilage (unlike the lunch menu items that have a limited shelf stable life and need refrigeration/heat maintained to prevent pathogen multiplication and at the same time stay in accordance with the FDA food code.

    As for the nutritionists working hard for the local government, it is time their hard work is appreciated by one and all. “Project implementation”is the key to success, rather than meeting attendance, and I am sure many of the readers will agree with me here:-)

  • Snow

    Nice decision.

    • ayaniah

      very nice