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Managing Food Competition in Schools

Kids at a school party -- food competition in schools

There’s a lot of food competition in schools. From bake sales to concession stands, food is everywhere, and not always healthy or a good model of nutrition.

In 2008, I appeared in front of the Tennessee Congress to petition against the sale of beverages in excess of 12 ounces in the public schools. While school principals and leaders complained about the impact of smaller containers resulting in less income for school programs, I wanted lawmakers to understand the long-term implications of 16 and 24-ounce beverages on the health of children.

Senators discussed calories and physical activity; I discussed the association of large portions with childhood obesity. I was outraged that school program funding relied on the purchase of large sodas, flavored milk (which I don’t have an issue with as long as it’s in proper portions— see The Pros and Cons of Chocolate Milk and Chocolate Milk: Keeping Perspective) and packaged snacks!

If you have worked in public policy or grassroots politics, you know that every new rule and law modification can be a fight, with opposing views and various priorities.

We are at it again with school nutrition, now focusing on food competition in schools, or competitive foods—those foods sold a la carte (on the side or in addition to the lunch menu), in school stores, snack bars, concession stands and vending machines. Competitive foods compete with the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs (NSLP/SBP).

It’s about time we squared away guidelines for managing the food competition in schools.

Just the other day, my son told me that kids buy ice cream for lunch.

That’s it.

Many parents don’t know what their kids are eating at school, assuming, like myself, that they are choosing a well-balanced meal. That’s not always the case. Even I had a phase in high school when I bought the homemade (gigantic) yeast roll for lunch—and that was it!

My mom had no idea.

I’ve had many parents vent their frustration about vending machines, concession stands, classroom parties and bake sales that supply an endless stream of sweets and treats — especially if they are trying to feed their children healthy fare. Even with the 90-10 Rule, these extra foods can be challenging to balance.

The ultimate frustration is the lack of support from schools in regulating the frequency and types of foods to which their children are exposed.

Click Here to Grab My Healthy Concession Stand Make-Over

Setting nutrition standards on competitive foods is one way to ensure that children are provided with healthy food options throughout the school day. It’s another step toward helping regulate children’s intake, because many children, when given leeway and less than healthy options, will make the wrong choice.

I don’t completely buy the idea that children will “make the right choice.” I wish they would. But, most children choose what their friends are choosing (it’s a developmental thing), and when given the choice of an apple or a bag of cheesy fried crunchy snacks, they’ll go for the cheesy things nine times out of ten. Just work at the school concession stand, and you’ll see for yourself.

If you’re a parent who has a child that makes the right choice most of the time, kudos to you, and I mean no offense. But, it’s been my experience, both professionally and personally, that junk beats healthy food in the eyes and tummies of a child, most of the time.

So, we need to tip the scales to encourage the healthy choice most of the time. We need to make the healthy choice the easy choice. Put the junk out of sight, out of mind, so to speak.

We need to make the healthy choice the easy choice for kids. Click To Tweet

And this is exactly what is happening now with competitive foods in schools.

Proposed Changes for Competitive Foods in School 

Competitive foods must:

  • Be either a fruit, a vegetable, a dairy product, a protein food, a “whole-grain rich” grain product (50% or more whole grains by weight or have whole grains as the first ingredient), or a combination food that contains at least 1⁄4 cup of fruit or vegetable; or  
  • Contain 10% of the Daily Value (DV) of a nutrient cited as a public health concern in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) (calcium, potassium, vitamin D, or fiber).

Additionally, foods sold must meet a range of calorie and nutrient requirements:

  • Total fat must be ≤35% of calories; saturated fat must be <10% of calories; and trans fat must be 0 g as stated on the label. Exemptions are provided for reduced fat cheese; nuts and nut butters without other ingredients and seafood with no added fat.
  • Snack items shall contain ≤200 milligrams of sodium. For entrée items, sodium levels must be ≤480 milligrams per portion, for non-NSLP/SBP entrée items.
  • For total sugar levels, the proposal includes two alternatives: one is ≤35% of calories and the other is ≤35% of weight. Exemptions are provided for fruits and vegetables packed in juice or extra-light syrup and for certain yogurts.
  • Snack items have a limit on calories of ≤200 calories per portion. Non- school lunch/breakfast program entrée items have a calorie limit of ≤350 calories.


Under the new proposal, all schools may sell plain water, plain low fat milk, plain or flavored fat- free milk and milk alternatives permitted by NSLP/SBP, and 100% fruit/vegetable juice. Portion sizes of milk and juice vary by the age of students. Elementary schools may sell up to 8-ounce portions. Middle schools and high schools may sell up to 12-ounce portions.

There are more drink options for high schoolers. These include 20-ounce servings or less for calorie-free, flavored and/or unflavored carbonated water and other calorie-free beverages that comply with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) standard of <5 cals/serving.

Additionally, the proposal would allow 12-ounce servings of other beverages (like sports drinks) within a specified calorie limit. The proposal offers two alternatives for this limit. The first is ≤ 40 cals/8 oz serving (or ≤ 60 cals/12 oz serving), and the second is 50 cals/8 oz serving (or 75 cals/12 oz serving). Such beverages shall not be available in the meal service area during the meal service periods.


The proposal requires accompaniments (condiments like ketchup, salad dressing, mayo) to be pre-portioned and offered only when food is sold. In addition, accompaniments must “fit” within the nutrient profile of the food that they accompany.


The sale of food items that meet the proposed nutrition requirements at fundraisers would not be limited in any way under the proposed rule. However, the law permits USDA to allow for a limited number of fundraisers to sell food and beverage items that do not meet the proposed nutrition requirements.

What do you think? Are competitive foods in school a help or a hindrance? Is it time to mange these better in schools? Sound off here!


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  1. Do kids in the US eat unhealthy food? Yes. Is that a problem? Yes. Where do they get it? At home, at school, at the fast food restaurant or grocery store after school…

    I do think some limits on what is sold at school might be good, but not at the expense of being able to sell small cartons of nachos and hotdogs at sports events.

    But then, what do we limit? I disagree that milk should be low fat or fat free. Fat in a sugary treats (like flavored milk and yogurt) helps prevent blood sugar spikes and, in general, helps us feel full. I think an apple slathered in caramel sauce might fit in your limits, but be worse for the child than the small carton of nachos you want to take away.

    Nuts can make kids just as fat as potato chips and pizza.

    Instead of just taking things away, I think it’s important to offer healthy alternatives that actually taste good. Let’s remind our children that eating healthy can still be eating happy.

    1. I agree, Dawn, it’s a tough balance to strike. Where do you draw the line? What do you control and what do you allow children to navigate on their own? I agree that this is the way of the world and children need to learn how to navigate it…no easy answers!