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June 27, 2013

Junk food bounced from U.S. schools

WASHINGTON — Junk food and sugary drinks will be pulled from schools next year as part of a nutritional overhaul aimed at improving child health and tackling obesity.

The "Smart Snacks in School" standards released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture takes such options as full-fat chocolate cookies, fruit snacks and candy bars offered at lunch and in vending machines, replacing them with healthier foods such as peanuts, light popcorn and fruit cups. Elementary and middle school children can drink water, milk and juice, while high school students also will be offered beverages with 60 calories or fewer in a 12-ounce serving.

The snack rules, which had been proposed in February, take effect in July 2014, giving schools and suppliers time to adjust to requirements that promote foods high in whole grains, dairy, fruits and vegetables, the USDA said. The guidelines don't apply to foods sold after school or brought from home. Bake sales, fundraisers and sweet treats at parties are still allowed.

"It's important to teach children healthy eating habits that will affect their health throughout their lives," said Margo Wootan, the nutrition policy director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based consumer advocacy group, who has worked on the issue for more than 15 years. "It doesn't make sense for schools to teach nutrition in the classroom, then counter it by selling sugary drinks and candy bars in vending machines in the hallway."

The snack rules build on the revamped nutritional standards for school lunches and breakfasts enacted about a year ago. The agency reviewed almost 250,000 comments from teachers, students, and health and industry officials stemming from the proposal.

"Parents and schools work hard to give our youngsters the opportunity to grow up healthy and strong, and providing healthy options throughout school cafeterias, vending machines, and snack bars will support their great efforts," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement.

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