Schools brace for new snack standards, possible sales hit
ALBANY—New York school districts are preparing to change their snack and beverage offerings to comply with new federal nutrition guidelines and are bracing for a drop in sales revenue if students reject the relatively healthy options.
Under the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, the federal government issued new regulations for next school year that aim to improve the quality and healthfulness of snacks and drinks offered in school cafeterias. School districts are now putting out competitive bids to vendors for products that meet the standards, which mandate, for example, that some snacks are “whole-grain rich,” which means whole grains must make up more than half of the grains in the products. Another rule is that snacks' first ingredient listed must be a fruit, vegetable, dairy product or protein. Snacks can't be more than 200 calories.
“About half the items that we currently offer will be gone next year, so we're trying to find products that meet the standards,” said Mark Bordeau, senior director of food services for the Broome-Tioga Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES), a state-funded entity that offers shared services to 14 school districts in the southern tier.
Bordeau said he used to contract with an ice cream company that will no longer be selling its products to the schools, because the items don't meet the standards and it wasn't willing to reformulate its ingredients.
Margaret Sullivan, school lunch program director for the Saratoga Springs school district, said she will no longer order soft pretzels or a certain kind of bagged popcorn, because the snacks don't meet the sodium requirements. Instead, she'll offer mini rice cakes. About a quarter of the snack items she used to sell will no longer cut it, she said.
The food service directors said they are concerned that the new standards will lead to a drop in sales revenue. It's hard to predict was students will find “acceptable,” Bordeau said. If they don't like what's offered in the cafeteria, they'll bring snacks from home or find them off campus.
“It's a guessing game,” he said.
Both Bordeau and Sullivan said they're launching promotional campaigns to encourage more participation in school lunch. If more students buy lunch, the additional revenue might help balance the loss in “a la carte” sales, they said.
Vendors are also working with manufacturers to find acceptable products and hoping they won't see a decline in sales.
Charles Winters, contract sales manager for Ginsberg's Foods, based in Hudson, said he won't be able to offer the same variety of snacks to schools. While he might have had eighteen flavors of corn chips before, now he will have three, he said. He's also looking for smaller portions. A 2.5 ounce bagged snack will be swapped for a 2 ounce bag.
“There is so much revenue coming through the a la carte, and now if schools can't offer that item, will the kids go without? They might just skip and wait until after school to grab something,” said Winters, whose company services 125 school districts in New York. “It's hard predicting what kids are going to do.”
Amie Hamlin, executive director of the NY Coalition for Healthy School Food, a non-profit based in Ithaca, said the new standards' affect on school budgets is a valid concern.
“But the more valid concern is: Is the food being served healthy?” she said.
Hamlin said the new standards will improve the quality of snacks sold at school, but some products that meet the standards are not what she considers healthy.
“The bottom line is that these snack standards are a step in the right direction, but they leave a lot to be desired, because they still allow for highly processed foods,” she said.
She offered corn chips as an example. Although the first ingredient is corn, which is a vegetable, "the rest of it is artificial junk,” she said.
The food service directors had similar complaints, especially about the beverage standards.
Under the guidelines, all schools may sell water, carbonated water, unflavored low-fat milk, flavored skim milk and 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice that's not artificially sweetened.
High schools have a little more flexibility. Older students will be able to buy calorie-free flavored water and “other flavored and/or carbonated beverages that are labeled to contain five calories or fewer per 8 fluid ounces or 10 calories or fewer per 20 fluid ounces.”
So schools could sell diet soda to students but not 1% chocolate milk.
“I think that's sending a mixed message,” Bordeau said.
Sullivan said she's satisfied that the new standards are an improvement.
“I think it's a matter of moderation,” she said. “If a student is eating a good lunch, and they have a use for some extra calories because of their activity level or their growth at that time, while a bag of chips or the low-fat ice cream is maybe not the most nutrient-dense food, it's better than what we were allowed to sell before.”