Are you concerned your child may buy soda, candy, and other junk food at school? Thanks to new national nutrition standards for school snacks, soon only healthier food items will be for sale during the school day.

The new standards mean that instead of buying chocolate bars, gummy snacks, or root beer from school vending machines, your child may be choosing granola bars, 100 percent fruit juice, or pita chips. Schools have until fall 2014 to move to the new standards, which were developed to increase children’s consumption of fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, and whole-grain foods, while decreasing their sugar, fat, salt, and caloric intake.

The Smart Snacks in School standards were released in June 2013 by the United States Department of Agriculture. Mandated by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, they follow on the heels of new national nutrition guidelines for school lunches and breakfasts, which began rolling out in 2012.

“The health of today’s school environment continues to improve,” says Debbi Beauvais, a registered dietician nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “These new standards are intended to improve the health and well-being of the nation’s children, increase consumption of healthful foods during the school day, and create an environment that reinforces the development of healthy eating habits.”

Based on science and recommendations from the Institute of Medicine, the Smart Snacks in School standards are the first update to school snack rules since the 1970s. They are an important part of an overall effort to improve children’s health by promoting healthier eating and more active lifestyles. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one-third of American children are overweight or obese, putting them at increased risk for developing heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, stroke, several types of cancer, and other health problems.

Research shows that many children eat almost half their daily calories at school, and children who live in states with strong school nutrition standards gain less weight than those in states without strict rules. Research also has demonstrated that school is a safe and supportive place for children to learn about healthy eating habits, which they can carry with them into their adult lives.

In general, the following requirements will apply to all snacks, vending machine foods, and “a la carte” cafeteria items—or what the industry calls “competitive foods”—sold at schools:

  • Snacks must be a fruit, vegetable, dairy product, protein food, or whole-grain-rich food.
  • Snacks and “a la carte” items must be limited to 200 calories; “entrees” sold individually, and not as part of a full school lunch, are limited to 350 calories.
  • Snacks can contain no trans fat.
  • Beverages for sale must include water, carbonated water, low-fat and fat-free milk, and fruit and vegetable juices.
  • Low- or no-calorie sodas, sports drinks, and flavored waters cannot be sold in elementary or middle schools, but can be sold in high schools in limited serving sizes.

In addition, the standards set limits on the amounts of sugar, fat, and sodium in any food item. For additional details, check the USDA website.

How Will the Changes Affect Your Child?

The new snack rules affect only food sold in schools and not food that your child brings from home or eats outside of school hours. Below is a list of common school-related activities that involve food and an explanation of how the standards impact them. Keep in mind, however, that your own state, school, or district may have additional food or nutrition policies.

  • Lunch: The federal rules do not impact the food children bring from home in bagged lunches. If you make your child’s lunch each day, nothing will change. If your child buys snacks or drinks from the vending machine, cafeteria, or school store to supplement the lunch you make, she will have healthier choices.
  • Class parties: The standards don’t apply to the types of foods that children and families can bring to classroom parties and celebrations. However, your school may have its own set of food rules for classroom parties, so be sure to check with your child’s teacher.
  • After-school events: The standards do not affect food items sold at activities held outside of normal school hours, such as sporting events, musical performances, and evening movie nights. For example, candy bars and sodas may still be sold at Friday night football games or the high school musical.
  • Off-campus fundraisers: Many school clubs and organizations sell chocolate bars, sweetened popcorn, cookies, caramels, and other food items to raise funds. As long as these items are sold and consumed outside of school buildings, these fundraisers are allowed.
  • In-school bake sales: The new snack rules do not kill the school bake sale. Occasional school fundraisers with sweet treats are allowed, but states are given the authority to limit how many a school can hold each year.

Learn about your school’s nutrition policy

While the federal standards set minimum nutrition guidelines for school snacks, states and local communities can enact or continue to enforce stricter rules, Beauvais says. For example, New York State has banned the sale of soda in all schools since 1986, and that will not change.

In addition, thousands of schools and districts across the country already have embraced healthier foods in schools through voluntary programs, such as the USDA’s HealthierUS Schools Challenge. According to the USDA, more than half of all schools in the country do not allow fundraisers that sell sweet or salty foods. You should always ask about your own school or district’s food or wellness policy before bringing in food from home.

To learn more about the standards, visit the USDA’s Smart Snacks in Schools page.