Local school officials said Friday they supported a decision by the U.S. Agriculture Department to eliminate the sale of all junk food in schools.
The decision also was praised by U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who had encouraged the agency to make the move as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Schools Act, an effort she led to reform child nutrition that was signed into law in 2010.
Junk food is defined as anything that does not meet USDA nutrition standards. This includes foods with total fat accounting for more than 35 percent of their calories, with some exceptions, and snack items with more than 200 milligrams of salt. A standard bag of potato chips would be considered junk food by these standards.
Edmeston Central School has been working toward those goals for several years, Superintendent Brian Hunt said.
“We have to work on portion size, but we have most of these things in place already,” he said.
Thanks to the efforts of food service director Brian Belknap and his staff, “we have been working on offering healthier food for some time now,” Hunt said.
For example, a lot of the food that is served in the school is prepared from scratch using local produce, he said.
“We even have a greenhouse,” Hunt said.
Soda has already been removed from the menu. The school offers baked chips, which are lower in fat and salt than junk food. And the kitchen uses fresh potatoes bought locally instead of frozen processed potatoes.
“In general, students have gone along with the changes,” he said. “Sometimes we have to be creative.”
This includes offering yogurt parfaits with fresh fruit. The student also are offered brownies and cookies, but they are not that big as they used to be.
USDA’s new ruling draws on recommendations from the Institute of Medicine, existing voluntary standards already enacted by thousands of schools nationwide and healthy food and beverage offerings already available in the marketplace.
The proposal includes:
• Promoting the availability of healthy snack foods with whole grains, low-fat dairy produts, fruits, vegetables or protein foods as their main ingredients.
• Ensuring that snack food items are lower in fat, sugar and sodium and provide more of the nutrients kids need.
• Allowing variation by age group for such factors as beverage portion size and caffeine content.
• Preserving the parents’ right to give students bagged lunches of their choosing or treats for birthdays, holidays and other celebrations and allowing schools to continue traditions like occasional fundraisers and bake sales.
• Ensuring that standards only affect foods that are sold on school campus during the school day. Foods sold at after-school sporting events or other activities will not be subject to the requirements.
• Allowing significant local and regional autonomy by limiting the rules to minimum requirements. States and schools that have stronger standards than what is being proposed will be able to keep them.
Connie Latham is the assistant food service director for the Delaware-Chenango-Madison-Otsego Board of Cooperative Educational Services.
She said she is focused on the Walton, Downsville and Afton central school food programs. While she spoke mostly of the Walton program, the other schools are in a similar situation, she said.
Latham said she favors any steps taken to improve student health.
“The kids aren’t always happy, but they get over it quickly,” she said.
At Walton, “we don’t have snacks in the elementary school,” she said.
The traditional snack offerings at the high school are all baked, which reduces fat content, and students are offered drinks that are 100 percent juice, which has a lower sugar content. Many vending machines have low-fat offerings, such as yogurt and string cheese.
“I’m sure we will have to cut back on some of our ice creams,” Latham said.
Some of the recent adjustments by the USDA have been difficult for students, such as the limits on meat, grain and bread that can be served in a week, she said. Eating enough carbohydrates can be important in getting through the day, she said. Those limits were lifted for this year.
“It was nice they paid attention,” she said of the agency.
Delaware Academy Central School Superintendent Jason Thomson said increasing the nutritional value of food served in schools has a lot of merit.
“We do a lot of what is proposed already,” he said.
This includes using the school garden to provide fresh vegetables for its cafeteria. He credited teacher Mark Klein and food service director Chris Miller with some of the initiatives.
“All schools will need to make some adjustments but I’m proud of where we are,” he said.
The new standards won’t take effect until a year after public comment is considered and an implementing rule is published, ensuring that schools and vendors have adequate time to adapt.