Public school students in Texas looking to recharge with a snack during the day may find fruits and vegetables instead of sugary, high-fat snacks in the vending machines next year.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture this month banned unhealthy snacks in schools and will require schools nationwide to offer healthier options beginning next year. Although Texas cracked down on unhealthy food in 2004, officials say some schools may struggle with the new snack offering requirements.
“Anytime the federal government creates regulations, a burden is placed on someone,” said Bryan Black, spokesman for the Texas Department of Agriculture. “In this case, Texas schools will bear the burden on implementing the new standards, and our staff will partner with them to ease the burden.”
The federal regulations target food sold in school snack bars and vending machines, banning items that are high in sugar, fat and sodium and encouraging schools to instead offer products with whole grains, low-fat dairy or fruits and vegetables.
New standards only apply during school hours and do not apply to food brought from home for holidays, bagged lunches or food sold at after-school events.
In South Texas, Child Nutrition Specialist Roberto Cuellar said he expects some resistance to the new standards. Although the district has introduced healthier food in its schools per the Texas standards, Cuellar said the process was not easy.
“Some people say, ‘Well, it’s my life,’” Cuellar said. “People say, ‘I’m paying for it, so don’t worry about me.’”
Although the Laredo Independent School District receives federal funds to pay for food because of the amount of poor children in the area, Cuellar said it has still faced challenges buying fresh fruit and vegetables, which tend to be more expensive.
Deanna Hoelscher, director of the Michael and Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, said students in districts that do not regulate school snacks are more likely to gain weight.
Hoelscher said the new policies will make districts look at snacks in new ways, normalizing healthy snacks in schools and encouraging healthy living.
“It makes it a bit easier for parents, myself included, who are trying to enforce and pay attention to what the child eats,” Hoelscher said. “It’s really difficult when you’re trying to watch [food] at home and then [they] go to school and school is not consistent.”
Texas has long struggled with obesity. In 2009, nearly 66.8 percent of Texas adults were overweight or obese, according to the Department of State Health Services.
The same year, 15.6 percent of Texas high school students were overweight. These children had a body mass index greater than 85 percent of the people of their age and gender, meaning they had an abnormally high ratio of body fat. Of those students, 13.6 percent were obese, meaning their BMI was greater than 95 percent of those in their age and gender.
Some school districts said that the Texas policies have made it easier on them to comply with the new federal guidelines and don’t expect much of a shock.
At the Northside Independent School District in San Antonio, nutrition director Thomas Wherry said the district has been complying with the new standards for years. Northside does not have snack bars and offers healthier, high-quality food items such as whole grains and unprocessed chicken for students.
“I know you’ll see a brownie, but that’s a low-fat brownie, and the cookies are whole-wheat cookies,” Wherry said.
The healthier items are more expensive, but Wherry said the students are eating them. More than 80 percent of Northside’s students eat in the school cafeterias, Wherry said, and the fees from those meals help to offset the cost of the healthier alternatives.
“If districts are just now trying to make the changes, they may have a harder time because it’s too much change,” Wherry said. “This is a gradual change. It’s taken us 10 years to get to where we’re at.”
*Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Deanna Hoelscher worked at the University of Texas at Austin.