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Food control: New regulations target meals sold in schools

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WASHINGTON — Most candy, high-calorie drinks and greasy meals could soon be on a food blacklist in the nation's schools.

For the first time, the government is proposing broad new standards to make sure all foods sold in schools are more healthful.

Under the new rules the Agriculture Department proposed Friday, foods like fatty chips, snack cakes, nachos and mozzarella sticks would be taken out of lunch lines and vending machines. In their place would be foods like baked chips, trail mix, diet sodas, lower-calorie sports drinks and low-fat hamburgers.

The rules, required under a child nutrition law passed by Congress in 2010, are part of the government's effort to combat childhood obesity. While many schools already have improved their lunch menus and vending machine choices, others still are selling high-fat, high-calorie foods.

Under the proposal, the Agriculture Department would set fat, calorie, sugar and sodium limits on almost all foods sold in schools. Current standards already regulate the nutritional content of school breakfasts and lunches that are subsidized by the federal government, but most lunchrooms also have "a la carte" lines that sell other foods. Food sold through vending machines and in other ways outside the lunchroom has never before been federally regulated.

"Parents and teachers work hard to instill healthy eating habits in our kids, and these efforts should be supported when kids walk through the schoolhouse door," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said.

Most snacks sold in school would have to have less than 200 calories. Elementary and middle schools could sell only water, low-fat milk or 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice. High schools could sell some sports drinks, diet sodas and iced teas, but the calories would be limited. Drinks would be limited to 12-ounce portions in middle schools and to 8-ounce portions in elementary schools.

The standards will cover vending machines, the "a la carte" lunch lines, snack bars and any other foods regularly sold around school. They would not apply to in-school fundraisers or bake sales, though states have the power to regulate them. The new guidelines also would not apply to after-school concessions at school games or theater events, goodies brought from home for classroom celebrations, or anything students bring for their own personal consumption.

The new rules are the latest in a long list of changes designed to make foods served in schools more healthful and accessible. Nutritional guidelines for the subsidized lunches were revised last year and put in place last fall. The 2010 child nutrition law also provided more money for schools to serve free and reduced-cost lunches and required more meals to be served to hungry kids.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has been working for two decades to take junk foods out of schools. He calls the availability of unhealthful foods around campus a "loophole" that undermines the taxpayer money that helps pay for the healthier subsidized lunches.

"USDA's proposed nutrition standards are a critical step in closing that loophole and in ensuring that our schools are places that nurture not just the minds of American children but their bodies as well," Harkin said.

Last year's rules faced criticism from some conservatives, including some Republicans in Congress, who said the government shouldn't be telling kids what to eat.

A spokeswoman for the American Beverage Association, which represents the soda companies, says they already have greatly reduced the number of calories that kids are consuming at school by pulling out the high-calorie sodas.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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