As a result of the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, a federal regulation that affects public schools nationwide, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is allowed to regulate the standards for snacks sold in schools, and a new update has been dubbed the Smart Snack Law.
The regulations require all public school vending machine snacks be below 200 calories. Some students, especially those in high school, have expressed they don’t like the new chips, which are baked instead of fried, and miss the peanut butter-filled crackers, which were replaced with rice crackers, saying they “taste like Styrofoam.”
“If it doesn’t really taste good, we don’t want to eat it. Everything that’s in (the vending machines) is tasteless,” said Marietta High School senior Mary Jeanne Assinzo.
The Smart Snacks law places limits on almost every ingredient in foods. The main ingredient must be whole grains or one of the main food groups, such as dairy, protein, fruits or vegetables. Total fats and sugar in all snacks must be below 35 percent of the federal government’s daily recommended values, and sodium levels must be below 230 mg in each item.
These restrictions throw out snacks that used to fill the shelves, such as Pop Tarts, Doritos, candy bars and non-diet sodas.
The Smart Snacks Law works in conjunction with new nationwide federal standards from the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act on school lunches, which have similar requirements, including whole-wheat flour for the main ingredient in wheat products and lower sodium levels.
Cindy Culver, nutrition director for the Marietta City Schools, said the regulations are controlling how much fat, sodium and calories students eat to keep them healthy.
“The main goal is the whole grain being a low-fat option and also portion control,” Culver said.
Students still hungry
Marietta High School senior Harry McMahon, the school’s student body co-president, said he doesn’t think the law restricts the right thing.
“Everyone is obsessed with the calorie counts, but that’s not what really matters. What matters are the ingredients,” McMahon said. “It’s more processed food, which in a lot of ways is bad for you even though it’s 200 calories.”
Leigh Colburn, principal of Marietta High School, said she doesn’t oppose following the regulations, but she knows students aren’t pleased with the new options.
“What you’ll see (in the vending machine) is a bag that looks like Cheetos, but when you zoom in, you’ll see that it’s just rice puffs,” Colburn said. “And it’s just not good.”
McMahon and Assinzo are track and field athletes, and they eat about 6,000 calories a day.
McMahon said it’s “almost impossible” to eat enough to have a full stomach on the calorie-restrictive diet in place at school during lunch and in the vending machines.
“They even took out granola bars, the Nature Valley ones. Those are filling. They’re good for you, and I would have one of those every day before track (practice),” McMahon said.
But, that’s not enough for McMahon.
“Usually, what I eat during the day is three sandwiches and then my lunch, which is usually rice and chicken or something, and then I have a sack of Oreos and some crackers. I eat a lot of food,” McMahon said.
Assinzo said she is ranked third in the nation for track, and she also runs cross country.
“My snacks are like meals. I’ll bring a whole sandwich, peanut butter-filled pretzels, almonds, trail mix, grapes, carrots, sometimes watermelon, bananas and then I’ll have chocolate-covered raisins,” Assinzo said.
As a result of the new regulations, Assinzo said, most students skip vending machine snacks, and by the time the final bell rings at 2:30 p.m., they drive to the closest fast food restaurant to satisfy their hunger.
“The only thing it’s making us do is go out and buy something that is not good for you. At that point, it’s just finding something that is filling, and we’re buying fries from McDonald’s, which are definitely not good for you, but just getting something filling before practice,” Assinzo said.
Colburn said the regulations have some unintended consequences, such as a new black market among students, where junk food snacks stolen from the pantry at home are sold at cheap prices to other students during the day.
“Part of my concern is that (the regulations) have created a process that doesn’t really align with what they set out to achieve,” Colburn said.
Colburn said the regulations aren’t approaching the issue of health the right way.
“If you listen to the White House or whoever it is that’s pushing this out, they’ll say it’s about nutrition, but Diet Coke is not healthier than regular Coke. It’s different, but it’s not healthier,” Colburn said.
“It really is more about the calorie than anything else … It’s not about nutrition. It totally usurps principal and local authority.”
Colburn said she estimates the school will lose $10,000 from vending machine sales this year because students don’t like the offerings.
McMahon said he’s old enough to make smart food choices on his own.
“I could have dropped out of school and enlisted in the military … if my parents were divorced I could have chosen which one I want to live with, yet I can’t pick what I eat, and a lot of people resent that,” McMahon said.
Younger students like new snacks
The sort of resentment the high schoolers feel hasn’t spread to the younger students.
Joel Charles, an eighth-grader at Marietta Middle School, said he noticed when the Goldfish in the vending machine switched from regular to the whole-grain rich variety, but he didn’t mind it.
“I like how it tastes now, but it was good before,” Charles said.
Zharia Matute, a seventh-grader at Marietta Middle School, said the vending machines still have the cookies she likes, so it’s all the same to her.
“I usually just get a cookie, and a water,” Matute said. “They taste good.”
Culver said the middle-schoolers have had a little more time to get used to the changes.
“(The middle school) has already had these for the past two years, so they’ve already incorporated the healthy snack regulations a couple years ago,” Culver said.
Culver said she doesn’t have much control over the regulations, which come from the federal government, but she hasn’t noticed any pushback from students.
“I don’t hear anything specific about the vending machines, but from what I see, kids are still purchasing out of them,” Culver said.