Click Here to sign up for the SHAPE Newsletter!

Operators debut 'Smart Snacks in School' program

Sysco Shape August 2014

Beginning this summer, school foodservice operators across the nation have begun to offer kids a wider variety of healthful food options beyond the standard breakfast and lunch meal periods.

According to the USDA's “Smart Snacks in Schools” nutrition standards that took effect July 1, schools participating in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs are now required to conform to a new set of guidelines governing the food and beverages sold as snacks.

The new standards promote such foods and beverages as whole grains, fruits and vegetables, leaner proteins and lower-fat dairy while limiting items containing too much sugar, salt and fats.

“The USDA has set healthier requirements for foods sold à la carte, in school stores, snack bars and vending machines to ensure that kids are only offered nutritious foods during the day,” says Melissa Berlin, senior specialist, nutrition services with Sysco Corp.

The Smart Snacks in School standards also extend to school fundraisers and booster clubs held during school hours.

The new regulations are part of the “Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010,” which established nutrition guidelines for food and beverages served in the reimbursable school meal program. The act, which was championed by U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama, set new standards for calories, fat and saturated fat, sodium and sugar contained in breakfast and lunch menu items.

Commenting on the new Smart Snacks regulation, Wesley Delbridge, director of school nutrition programs in Chandler, Ariz., and a spokesman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says, “It's a very positive thing. It gets rid of a mixed message. We worked hard to make school meals healthy, but then school stores, vending machines and franchised [operations] did not necessarily serve healthy foods. [The Smart Snacks regulation] gets everyone on the same page. Students will get the same nutritional message all day long.”

Proponents of serving more healthful food in schools cite the nation's chronic problem with childhood obesity as the chief reason for needing such requirements. “This generation of students are the first generation predicted to live shorter life spans than their parents,” Delbridge says.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that in 2012 more than one-third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese. In addition, childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents over the past 30 years, according to the CDC.

“We need to address it at all levels,” Delbridge says. “We need to expose kids to this kind of food to build good habits.”

According to the new nutrition standards under the Smart Snacks in Schools, any food sold in schools must:


  • Be a “whole grain-rich” grain product; or
  • Have as the first ingredient a fruit, vegetable, dairy product or protein food; or
  • Be a combination food containing at least a quarter cup of fruit and/or vegetables; or
  • Contain 10 percent of the daily value of one of the nutrients of public health concern in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (calcium, potassium, vitamin D or dietary fiber).


Food items also must conform to several nutrient requirements under the Smart Snacks in Schools standards:


  • Snack items must contain fewer than 200 calories per item;
  • Snacks must contain less than 230 mg of sodium per item;
  • All items must contain zero grams of trans fat per item;
  • Total sugar must be no more than 35 percent by weight;
  • Foods must contain 35 percent or less total calories from fat per item and no more than 10 percent total calories from saturated fat per item.


In cases where schools typically offered such items as chocolate sandwich cookies, donuts, fruit-flavored candies and regular cola before the regulations took effect, the new standards recommend replacing them with such items as peanuts, light popcorn, low-fat tortilla chips, reduced fat ice cream, granola bars, fruit cup and no-calorie-flavored water.

The new standards also allow schools to offer entrée items for sale in the à la carte line on the day they are served as part of the meal as well as the day after. The USDA says those entrées would be exempt from the nutrition standards on those days in order to send a consistent nutritional message about school meals. The exemption helps foodservice operators better manage their programs and prevent waste from leftovers.

Beverages also fall under the new Smart Snack regulations. For example, schools may sell:


  • Plain water, with or without carbonation;
  • Unflavored low-fat milk;
  • Unflavored or flavored fat-free milk and milk alternatives permitted by the National School Lunch Program/School Breakfast Program;
  • 100-percent fruit or vegetable juice; and
  • 100-percent fruit or vegetable juice diluted with water — with or without carbonation — and no added sweeteners.


Elementary schools are allowed to sell up to 8-ounce portions, while middle and high schools may sell up to 12-ounce portions of milk and juice.

“When they pulled soda five years ago there was an outcry at first,” Delbridge says. “But the kids got used to it.”

The Smart Snack standards also state that high schools may sell “no calorie” and “lower calorie” beverage options. Options include no more than 20-ounce portions of calorie-free, flavored water, with or without carbonation; other flavored and/or carbonated beverages labeled to contain less than five calories per eight fluid ounces or less than 10 calories per 20 fluid ounces; and no more than 12-ounce portions of beverages with up to 40 calories per 8 fluid ounces or 60 calories per 12 fluid ounces.

“Due to the strict guidelines, most programs have already replaced a lot of foods in order to comply with the regulations,” Sysco's Berlin says. To help operators determine whether a product meets the new USDA Smart Snacks guidelines, she recommends visiting the Alliance for a Healthier Generation calculator

To help operators adhere to the new standards, Sysco also has developed a list of several hundred Smart Snacks that conform to the new standards. The list includes such items as Kellogg Nutri-Grain Apple Breakfast Bar, Quaker Oatmeal Apple Cinnamon Snack Bar To Go, PepFarm Whole Grain Cracker Goldfish, and Yoplait Blueberry Greek Yogurt. Readers can contact their Sysco marketing associate for more information.

But while it is important to establish nutritious standards pertaining to the foods and beverages kids can and cannot eat throughout the school day, there is a need to educate them about their diet as well. “There has to be some sort of reinforcement,” Delbridge says.

“Educate your school community about the new standards and remember to involve students as they are the ultimate customer,” Berlin says.

Related Articles

The Kitchen Community reaches students through food

Entrepreneur Kimbal Musk believes in building community through food.

Healthy Snack Facts

A recent study shows that snacking between meals is actually a healthy habit. Here's how three onsite operators are making the healthy (and satisfying) snack break a reality.

How restaurants can enhance healthful items, sustainability

Thought leaders in the culinary arts and public health gathered in Cambridge, Mass., for the second annual Menus of Change conference this week to discuss ways improve the health of Americans, as well as the planet.

Study: Fruit is America’s favorite snack

Public health advocates lament Americans’ poor eating habits, noting the obesity epidemic that has swept the nation. But the country’s favorite snack remains a healthful one: fresh fruit.

Related Recipes

Peachy Keen Wrap

Crawling Critter Pizza Roll-Up

Grilled Cheese Shapes

Caul Me Maybe Mac N Cheese