By: Nicole Arcilla
A new school year has begun and students are well on their way into the first semester. No doubt parents all over the country were looking up ideas for quick lunches and snacks to pack for their kids. [Quick—how many recipes do you think were pinned on Pinterest before the first day of school??] For some parents, it’s a struggle to think up creative lunch and snack ideas to send off with their kids. Many parents will rely on the school to provide meals and snacks. But not to worry – there’s always plenty of options kids can choose from at school! Plus with all the school food regulations there’s got to be plenty of healthy choices too, right?….RIGHT?! Maybe not.
Before we get into the issue at hand, let’s add in a little more context:
In 2010, President Obama signed into law the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. This act aims to improve child nutrition and provide funding for free school lunch programs. In addition to these goals, the act also required that the USDA establish national nutrition standards for food sold and served in schools. In 2013 the USDA proposed new food rules. After reviewing public comments and much revision of the rules, the USDA published “Smart Snacks in School.” The rules required any school participating in the National School Lunch Program to comply to the new guidelines by July 1st, 2014.
So what exactly does the Smart Snacks in School rules do? These rules set strict guidelines for competitive foods – specifically foods that are sold in vending machines or in à la carte lunch lines, and even fundraisers and student school stores. Essentially, in order for a food product to be sold at school, it must be able to check off every single requirement of the Smart Snacks in School rules — including not exceeding the set limits on calories, fats, sugar, and sodium. Depending on the product, other rules may apply, but for now we’ll look at these basic rules.
Naturally, food companies weren’t going to give up and simply pull their products out of the school market. Instead they went back to the drawing board and reformulated their recipes. These new items have successfully checked off every single box on that Smart Snacks checklist (but barely). Snacks like Doritos, Goldfish, Cheetos, and others are now lower in fat, sodium, calories, etc…at least that’s how they are inside of schools. Now, this is where the problem starts: the packaging of these approved food products look incredibly identical to the original packaging that you see sold in stores. From the eyes of a child, there is zero difference between the Smart Snacks and the original snacks sold in stores. Cara Wilking, J.D., a senior staff attorney with the Public Health Advocacy Institute, states that this is exactly what food companies are trying to achieve – to use near identical packaging in order to “co-market traditional junk food to children in school”.
Earlier this year Wilking released a brief on these school approved snacks, now called “Copycat Snacks”. In her brief Wilking explains that having similar packaging may allow the child to believe that traditional snacks sold in stores are just as healthy as the ones sold in their schools. Who can blame them? At first glance the packaging of these snacks are too similar to notice any difference. Moreover, most of these Smart Snacks aren’t even sold in local grocery stores — so children and their parents wouldn’t exactly know to look for those “Smart Snacks” packaging and logo. See for yourself and look through the pictures Wilking provides in her brief. Be honest – would you have noticed the difference?
Wilking and several other attorneys are well on their way to resolve this issue by working with other organizations such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity has increased drastically in the last three decades. By 2012, more than one-third of children were classified as obese. Today, the numbers are reaching a sort of plateau, but that doesn’t change the fact that so many children are at risk for even more health complications as adults or even experiencing them now. Considering these facts and numbers, it’s important that continued action is taken to help improve the food environment of the children, particularly the ones in school. Schools are, after all, the one place that children spend majority of their days in. Luckily, the Smart Snacks in School rules are actually an ongoing process and the USDA will continue to make improvement before finalizing the rules – so there’s plenty of opportunity to improve this current situation with the Copycat Snacks.
How would you handle the situation with these Copycat Snacks? What message do you have for the food companies?
Photo Credit: Smart Snacks in School