by Marion Nestle
Jul 1 2013

USDA issues rules for competitive school foods. Yes!

At long last the USDA released Interim Final Rules for competitive foods—the snacks and sodas sold from vending machines and carts outside of federally supported school lunches.

They were worth the wait.

The new  standards are tough and will change the food landscape in schools much for the better.  They are summarized in a handy flier.   The new rules require:

  • Snacks to be rich in whole grains, have real food as a first ingredient, and provide nutritional value.
  • Drinking water to be available to all students at no cost.
  • Other drinks to contain no more than 40 calories per 8 fl oz, or 60 calories per 12 fl oz.  This excludes all regular sodas, even Gatorade. 

USDA summarizes the changes in its Smart Snacks in School Infographic:

Competitive foods have long been a bone of contention.  They compete for kids’ food money with the school meals.  Although USDA regulates where and when they can be sold, schools routinely violate such rules.  I’ve seen for myself  how many schools allow vending machines to be open during lunch periods.

The USDA issued nutrition standards for school meals early in 2012, but it’s taken this long to issue the ones for competitive foods, no doubt because of the expected uproar from food and drink producers whose products will now be excluded.

To back up the rules, the USDA has produced a vast array of materials and documents.

One web page is devoted to a toolkit of materials for “the healthier school day.”

A separate web page links to all of the legislative and other documents, videos, issue briefs, Q and A’s, statement from First Lady Michele Obama, and other items of technical assistance to the new “smart snacks in schools” program and rules.

Also see:

But note: the rule is “interim” because the 120-day comment period is now open.  USDA can still make plenty of changes.  Schools will have a year to implement the final standards.

Watch the lobbying begin.

You think there won’t be opposition?  Think again.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has just released a report recommending that USDA ease off on restricting the amount of meat and grains allowed in the school meal standards that went into effect this year.   Apparently, USDA agrees.  GAO reports are usually requested by members of Congress and this one is no exception.  Guess which party these particular requesters belong to, and who funds their election campaigns.

USDA deserves much applause and support for its courage in issuing rules for competitive foods that might actually help kids stay healthier.


  • SAO
  • July 2, 2013
  • 8:30 am

Real food should be more than just the first ingredient. Plenty of junk food has sugar and corn syrup as the second and third ingredients, producing a food that is 60% sugar.

[...] for schools, “They compete for kids’ food money with the school meals,” she said on her blog. “Although USDA regulates where and when they can be sold, schools routinely violate such [...]

[...] 4. Food Politics » USDA issues rules for competitive school foods. Yes!: [...]

  • Maureen Beach
  • July 2, 2013
  • 2:41 pm

Childhood obesity is a serious national health issue influenced by a complex array of factors. While the USDA guidelines pertaining to calorie consumption in schools are new, the beverage industry has been voluntarily following similar guidelines since 2006. We partnered with President Bill Clinton and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation and voluntarily replaced full-calorie soft drinks with more lower-calorie, smaller-portion choices in all schools: As a result of the industry’s voluntary efforts, we are pleased to say beverage calories shipped to schools have been reduced by 90 percent.

[...] USDA issues rules for competitive school foods. Yes!. [...]

[...] 1. Food Politics: USDA Issues Rules for Competitive School Foods [...]

[…] for schools: “They compete for kids’ food money with the school meals,” she said on her blog. “Although USDA regulates where and when they can be sold, schools routinely violate such […]

[…] USDA has issued final interim rules restricting junk food in […]

  • Dr. Enriquez
  • February 3, 2014
  • 12:06 pm

I think this is a good start, with much more needed work to come in the future. I even try to avoid recommending my patients eat snacks like popcorn or chips, which are on the new list from the USDA. I would love to see schools also offer more healthy snack options like nuts, fruit, eggs,etc.

  • Laura
  • February 18, 2014
  • 6:17 pm

Hi Marion, I’m trying to get an update on what’s going on currently with the nutrition standards. I know public comment closed on October 28, 2013 but what is happening now? Does it automatically go into effect? Thanks!

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