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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

Columbia Food Policy Expert Reports Schools Complying with National Nutritional Guidelines for Snack Food Offerings

As part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, snacks, and desserts sold in K-12 schools as of the 2014-2015 school year are required to meet the ‘‘Smart Snacks’’ nutritional guidelines – regulations which apply to foods sold in school stores, and in vending machines. Although some studies have tracked progress in local and national efforts, compliance with the Smart Snacks standard was unknown. Research at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health examined the nutritional quality of snacks and desserts procured by school districts across the country and found that there was a general trend in lower caloric and sugar density over a three-year period. Findings are published online in the Journal of School Health.

[Photo: Dr. Claire Wang]

“Schools are making headway in complying with the guidelines although gaps remain,” said Dr. Claire Wang, associate professor of Health Policy and Management, who led the research team.  Selected were 8 school districts in different regions of the U.S. with at least 90 percent complete data each year during the school years from 2011 to 2014.

Using a database of of public bid records, Dr. Wang and colleagues analyzed snack expenditure ranging from $152,000 to $4.4 million, reflecting a combination of school district size and the quantity of snack items procured. They reported that at least 50 percent of snack bids were compliant with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Smart Snacks standard during the 2013-2014 school year. The study is one of the first to link nutrition information and business transactions for manufacturers and suppliers and bids awarded by school districts.

Based on the nutrition content, the researchers determined whether a product

was considered compliant if it satisfied all the basic requirements on calories (≤ 200 kcal), proportion calories from fat (≤ 35 percent) and from saturated fat

(≤ 10 percent), trans fat (zero), sodium (≤ 230 mg), and sugar (≤ 35 percent by weight).

In addition to an overall 50 percent compliancy rate,  two districts more than doubled the proportion of compliant items between 2011-2012 and 2013-2014 school years.

“While our findings suggested that many school districts may have already embarked on a trajectory to improve the nutritional profile of their snack food offerings, there’s room for improvement,” said Dr. Wang. “A nutrition standard on snack foods clearly has to work in concert with other interventions in schools, because the school food environment involves not just the vending machines and `a la carte lines but also the cafeteria, school stores, sports events and fundraisers, in addition to the classroom.”