WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration on Friday released its long-awaited nutritional guidelines for snack foods sold in schools, an effort to combat the expanding waistlines of school-age children.
The guidelines come a year after the administration made the first changes to the $11 billion government-subsidized school meal program in more than three decades, adding more fruits and green vegetables to breakfasts and lunches and reducing the amount of salt and fat in meals.
The guidelines, which set minimum requirements for calories and fats allowed, encourage schools to offer low-fat and whole-grain snack foods or fruits and limit the availability of sugary drinks. They leave room for parents to send treats to school for activities like birthdays and holiday parties and will also allow schools to sell sweets for fund-raisers and after-school sporting events. School districts would have the flexibility to set tougher standards than the federal guidelines.
"Parents and teachers work hard to instill healthy eating habits in our kids, and these efforts shouldn't be undermined when kids walk through the schoolhouse door," Tom Vilsack, the agriculture secretary, said in a statement. "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."
The public will have 60 days to comment on the rules before they are finalized for the 2014-15 school year.
The rules are a major component of Michelle Obama's campaign to reduce the number of overweight children through exercise and better nutrition. A study by the National Academy of Sciences estimates that $2.3 billion worth of snack foods and beverages are sold annually in schools nationwide.
Efforts to restrict the food that schoolchildren eat outside the lunchroom had met resistance from some schools and the snack-food industry.
Representatives of the snack-food and beverage industries worried that many of their products, like baked potato chips, which they say are healthier than fried, would be banned.
Schools worried that overly restrictive rules would ban the selling of candy as part of fund-raisers that help pay for sports, band uniforms and field trips.
On Friday, representatives from the snack-food and beverage industries said they generally agreed with the guidelines.
"We anticipated that there would be significant changes to the way snack foods are sold in schools, and this is pretty much what we expected," said James A. McCarthy, president of the Snack Food Association, based in Arlington, Va. "The rules allow some flexibility on snack foods."
School officials also expressed their support for the rules.
"I don't think it's going to be difficult for schools to implement," said Jessica Shelly, director of food services for the Cincinnati Public School System. "I think most schools are already doing 90 percent of what's in the guidelines."
Nutrition experts called the rules an important step in ensuring that all foods, including snacks, meet some minimum nutritional standards. The experts said school vending machines stocked with potato chips, cookies and sugary soft drinks had contributed to the childhood obesity rate, which has more than tripled in the last 30 years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in every five children is obese.
Jessica Donze Black, director of the Kids' Safe and Healthful Foods Project at the Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington, said the guidelines would go a long way in helping to reduce those obesity rates.
"With many students consuming up to half their daily calories at school, these guidelines could make a real difference in the health of our nation's kids," she said.
Several states and schools systems have tried to limit access to unhealthy snack foods by offering items like fruit or yogurt and limiting sugary drinks. About 24 states have laws addressing snack foods. But the laws vary from state to state.
The snack-food industry, working with the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation, has started its own effort to provide healthier alternatives in school vending machines. The foods include baked potato chips, dry-roasted nuts and low-sodium pretzels. The initiative, called the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, was started in 2005 and establishes voluntary guidelines for healthier foods in schools.
But a study in JAMA Pediatrics, a publication of The Journal of the American Medical Association, released last year found that despite industry and schools efforts, children still had access to unhealthy snack food.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.