Last year's rules making main lunch fare more nutritious faced criticism from some conservatives, including some Republicans in Congress, who said the government shouldn't be telling kids 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 like bake sales, up to the states.
The rules have the potential to transform what many children eat at school.
In addition to meals already subject to nutrition standards, most lunchrooms also have "a la carte" lines that sell other foods — often greasy foods like mozzarella sticks and nachos. That gives students a way to circumvent the healthy lunches. Under the rules, those lines could offer healthier pizzas, low-fat hamburgers, fruit cups or yogurt and similar fare.
One of the biggest changes will be a near-ban on high-calorie sports drinks. Many beverage companies added sports drinks to school vending machines after sodas were pulled in response to criticism from the public health community.
The rule would only allow sales in high schools of sodas and sports drinks that contain 60 calories or less in a 12-ounce serving, banning the highest-calorie versions of those beverages.
Low-calorie sports drinks — Gatorade's G2, for example — and diet drinks will be allowed in high school.
Elementary and middle schools will be allowed to sell only water, carbonated water, 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice, and low fat and fat-free milk, including nonfat flavored milks.
Republicans have continued to scrutinize the efforts to make school foods healthier, and at a House subcommittee hearing Thursday, Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind., said the "stringent rules are creating serious headaches for schools and students."
One school nutritionist testified that her school has had difficulty adjusting to the 2012 changes, and the new "a la carte" standards could also be a hardship.
The healthier foods are expensive, said Sandra Ford, president of the School Nutrition Association and director of food and nutrition services for a school district in Bradenton, Fla. She also predicted that her school district could lose $975,000 a year under the new "a la carte" guidelines because they would have to eliminate many of the popular foods they sell.
In a report released at the hearing, the Government Accountability Office said that in some districts students were having trouble adjusting to the new foods, leading to increased waste and kids dropping out of the school lunch program.
The food industry has been onboard with many of the changes, and several companies worked with Congress on the child nutrition law three years ago.
Angela Chieco, a mother from Clifton Park, N.Y., sees the guidelines as a good start but says it will take a bigger campaign to wean kids off junk food.
"I try to do less sugar myself," Chieco said. "It's hard to do."
Associated Press writer Stacy A. Anderson contributed to this report.
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