High-calorie sports drinks and candy bars will be removed from school vending machines and cafeteria lines as soon as next year. ASSOCIATED PRESS PHOTO
BY JAMES L. ROSICA Tribune staff
Published: June 28, 2013
TALLAHASSEE - Florida has beaten the feds to the punch - sugary fruit punch, that is.
The U.S. Agriculture Department said Thursday that for the first time it will make sure all foods sold in the nation's schools are healthier by expanding fat, calorie, sugar and sodium limits to almost everything sold during the school day.
That means high-calorie sports drinks and candy bars will be removed from school vending machines and cafeteria lines as soon as next year, replaced with diet drinks, granola bars and other healthier items.
But for the most part, that's already happened in Florida, said Erin Gillespie, spokeswoman for state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.
"Florida has long realized that healthy foods are key to our children's success," she said. "That has been the standard and that is not changing."
The changes, though, affect mainly high schoolers. Soda is already banned at Florida elementary schools.
Stephanie Spicknall, nutrition coordinator for Pasco County's public schools, said vending machines there already serve whole-grain, reduced-fat chocolate chip cookies, and a cocoa and cherry-puree sweetened bar called the "Vertical G-force."
"The kids refer to it as the 'brownie' and we just kind of go with it," said Spicknall, a registered dietitian.
Art Dunham, director of food services for Pinellas County schools, said his district's snack offerings include granola bars and the "Fruit Wave," a fruit-infused water that comes in a "cottle," with a can top and plastic bottle base.
Dunham welcomes the new federal rules.
"It's a great thing," he said. "There is just too much sugar out there for young people."
Being healthy is big business, too: Pinellas County's 30,000 high school students bought 1.2 million beverages last year, with revenue of around $900,000.
The new rules are the latest in a long list of changes designed to make foods served in schools more healthful and accessible. A 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 children.
Other rules adopted last year to make main lunch fare more nutritious faced criticism from some conservatives, including some Republicans in Congress, who said the government shouldn't be telling children what to eat.
Mindful of that backlash, the Agriculture Department left one of the more controversial parts of the rule, the regulation of in-school fundraisers such as bake sales, up to the states.
Florida prohibits what's called "competitive sales" at elementary schools but allows them at high schools, one hour after the last lunch period, Gillespie said.
But most fundraising these days is based on selling sweets such as candy bars, not homemade cupcakes, she added.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.