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New USDA snack food standards could increase produce sales

The produce industry is hoping a new U.S. Department of Agriculture regulation announced Feb. 1 that puts limits on snack foods sold to children during the school day will not only promote healthy eating but drive up produce sales.

Under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, USDA must establish nutrition standards for all foods sold in schools, besides the federally supported school meal programs. The Smart Snacks in School proposed rule unveiled Feb. 1 requires all foods sold in schools meet the following criteria:

"Be either a fruit, a vegetable, a dairy product, a protein food, a 'whole-grain rich' grain product (50 percent or more whole grains by weight or have whole grains as the first ingredient), or a combination food that contains at least a quarter cup of fruit or vegetable; or contain 10 percent of the daily value of a nutrient cited as a public health concern in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (calcium, potassium, vitamin D, or fiber)."

The 160-page proposal sets limits for total fat, saturated fat, sodium, total sugar levels and calories in foods sold à la carte in school stores, snack bars or vending machines. Fruits and vegetables packed in juice or extra-light syrup and certain yogurts are exempt from the sugar limits in the proposal. It also sets new standards for beverages sold on campuses.

"Providing healthy options throughout school cafeterias, vending machines, and snack bars will complement the gains made with the new, healthy standards for school breakfast and lunch so the healthy choice is the easy choice for our kids," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement Feb. 1.

The United Fresh Produce Association quickly applauded USDA for establishing nutrition standards for "competitive" foods and beverages sold in schools.

"Increasing the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables as snacks in schools will go a long way towards creating a healthy school food environment and improving nutrition for millions of school children," said Lorelei DiSogra, United's vice president of nutrition and health. "In addition, this will drive opportunities for increased produce sales to schools."