CSPI Advocates for Healthier Competitive Foods

March 28, 2013

Today we spotlight efforts from The Center for Science in the Public Interest, around making healthy competitive foods a reality in our country’s schools.

Picture this: you're standing at a beverage vending machine inside a high school. Someone buys you a sugary fruit-punch drink and a bottle of seltzer water, and you are asked which one is considered junk food under current USDA snack and beverage policies. You’d probably pick the fruit punch, right? Well, you’d be wrong. The fruit punch is fortified with vitamins, thereby giving it the green light. The seltzer, still the healthier choice, has no vitamins or minerals, and is therefore considered a “junk food.” Huh? Walk into the cafeteria and it’s a similar story: greasy French fries are a popular option, and totally fine under the current regulations on competitive foods.

This scenario comes from an eye-opening quiz from The Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has been leading the way on research and national policy when it comes to healthy school food. It’s one of their many interactive educational pieces, and we applaud CSPI for their work in supplying valuable information and resources on this issue.

CSPI’s quiz (and other work on nutrition issues) highlights an important question: what counts as a healthy snack or beverage at school, and what should? The issue (what is or is not considered a snack or beverage of nutritional value) has been a key point of contention for the USDA in its discourse around competitive foods.

Schools and school food service enterprises have grappled with this for years—those of you in Chicago may recall when the “Super-Donut,” a sugary breakfast treat fortified with vitamins and minerals to make it nutritionally viable, made its way around Chicago Public Schools cafeterias.

The USDA is asking for feedback on whether to allow fortified snack foods and beverages in the new regulations or to only allow whole foods or snacks and beverages with naturally-occurring ingredients.

Anything can be fortified. But it’s one thing to hand a student a cookie with added vitamins and minerals (and potentially harmful additives and addictive sugars); it’s another to give hand that student a banana or orange. Offering whole, natural foods sends a different message and reinforces healthier behavioral patterns. CSPI outlines some ideas from healthy schools snacks here.

We encourage the USDA to opt for naturally-occurring ingredients, as opposed to fortification, to help schools clear junk foods and make more room for real food that would taste great, satisfy hungry students and remain in line with nutritional goals — more fruits, more vegetables, more whole grains.

As CSPI team members note, the USDA wants feedback from everyone, so those who support strong standards need to make their voices heard before April 9th. When the USDA was updating the standards on school meals, they received more than 133,000 comments—130,000 of which were in support of strong nutritional standards on school meals. With that level of amplification, we can ensure a school space for our children where healthy choices are easy choices and where natural, whole foods take precedence over fortified sugary snacks.

CSPI has worked with the National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity on a subcommittee for drafting comments on the proposed rule. Together, they created a 35-page model comment that they encourage organizations to use and adapt to their own thoughts.

Like HSC, CSPI encourages its partners and allies to mobilize constituents around competitive foods through social media and other materials. They will be sending an action alert and are meeting with members of the industry, education groups and others.

Those interested in CSPI’s efforts should visit the CSPI website! Keep checking the HSC blog for more on action and information around competitive foods.