Tom Karst, National Editor
Tom Karst, National Editor

Is America finally ready to lay a finger on the Butterfinger in school vending machines?

Jessica Donze Black, a registered dietitian and project director for the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project, a joint project of the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, certainly thinks it is time for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to make its move.

She points to poll data of likely voters who are ready to support an anticipated USDA plan to regulate “competitive food” — food sold in school vending machines and a la carte in school lunchrooms.

Hart Research Associates and American Viewpoint conducted the poll, which revealed that 81% of those surveyed are concerned about the issue of childhood obesity. Of that number, 54% say they are very concerned about obesity.

To put a finer point on it, the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project survey finds 80% of voters favor national standards limiting the calories, fat and sodium in snacks and à la carte foods in U.S. schools.

The limitations would address sugary drinks, pizza, salty snacks and fries.

Of those polled, 83% said they think food in school vending machines is not really healthy or nutritious. Only 5% think it is.

What’s more, 68% of consumers polled said food sold in a la carte lines is not really or only somewhat healthy or nutritious.

The expected regulation governing food in vending machines and a la carte items follows January’s nutrition standards for school meals. That rule doubles the offerings of fruits and vegetables in school meals, beginning in the 2012-13 school year.

The school vending regulation is expected to be issued by mid-June, and Donze Black said the proposed rule is expected to have a 90-day comment period. The final rule for school snack foods and a la carte is expected to become effective in the fall of 2013.

The “competitive foods” regulation — the first time the issue has been addressed in 30 years — figures to present a golden opportunity to increase the market for fruits and vegetables in school vending machines and a la carte at school lunch.

“Eighty percent of voters favor having national standards for snacks and a la carte foods and beverages sold in schools, which absolutely supports what we think is important, which is that all foods available to kids in schools are safe and healthy,” Donze Black said.

She said that it was hard to predict what will be in the USDA regulation.

Donze Black said the USDA proposal is expected to set reasonable standards for calories, for saturated fat and for sodium and added that the regulation may promote healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables, low fat dairy and whole grain products.

“(Students) will get more of what they do need and less of what they don’t need,” she said.

Data from earlier USDA research shows that four in 10 students buy and consume beverages or snack foods. Most student food purchases are high in fat, sodium and calories, Black said.

While obesity has been increasing, research has shown that students’ access to snack food and beverages has grown during the past 10 years.

In middle schools, the availability of vending machines in schools had doubled since the 1990s, and nearly half of elementary school children have access to unhealthy snacks.

Donze Black said many schools have already done the heavy lifting of improving the school food environment, and those schools will be able to lead all other schools adjusting to a tougher standard.

The salient industry observation in the evolution of this proposed regulation and implementation of the final rule in the fall of 2013 is the opportunity for fresh produce marketers in school vending and a la carte settings.

If fruit and vegetable vending has made inroads in recent years — and it has with companies like Vend Natural of Ventura, Calif. — the fledgling business must make much more progress in the next few years.

Donze Black said vending machines, the a la carte line and school stores could all offer more fruits and vegetables.

If there is ever an opportunity to expand the presence of fresh produce in schools, now is the time. Think of it, only 5% of those polled view vending machine choices as healthy and nutritious.

How much would creating more fresh fruit and vegetable options change that mindset for the better, and improve the longterm health of U.S. students?

Sorry Bart, we’re going to pry your hands off that Butterfinger. Why not give baby carrots a shot?

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