Under a provision passed in Congress earlier this month, schools may request a delay to comply with new U.S. Department of Agriculture nutrition standards for food and beverages sold in schools. The 2014 omnibus funding bill directs USDA to establish a waiver approval process by April 17, 2014 that will apply to regulations set to go into effect on July 1, 2014. To qualify for the waiver, schools must demonstrate that they cannot comply with the new regulations without incurring additional expenses during the 2014/15 school year.

For the first time, the government is going to regulate all foods sold in schools, not just the food served in meal lines. The new standards, often called “Smart Snacks in Schools,” were laid out in an Interim Final Rule on June 28, 2013 and will apply to "a la carte" lines in school cafeterias, vending machines, and snack bars, but won't apply to fundraisers, after-school concession stands, or class parties. USDA will issue a final rule, but all the requirements in the interim final rule go into effect on July 1, unless a school is granted a waiver under the new petition process.

"These standards will still allow for a wide variety of dairy products to be sold in schools, such as yogurt parfaits, low-fat ice cream sandwiches, string cheese sticks, and milk as long as they meet the nutrition guidelines," said Ruth Saunders, IDFA vice president for policy and legislative affairs. "But some schools have not had time to transition to the new standards, so the congressional waiver may be helpful to give them additional time."

Under the Smart Snacks in Schools rule, milks allowed must be plain or flavored fat-free or unflavored low-fat milk (1% milk fat or less), which is consistent with the regulations governing milk that is offered under the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs. Individual snack items cannot contain more than 35% of calories from fat and no more than 10% of total calories from saturated fat. Reduced-fat and part-skim mozzarella cheeses are exempt from fat and saturated fat limits but not if in combination foods. Individual snack items must also have no more than 200 calories and total sugar must be no more than 35% by weight. IDFA submitted comments to the interim final rule on Oct. 28, 2013.

Representative Robert Aderholt of Alabama, Chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, and Representative John Kline of Minnesota, Chairman of the Committee on Education and Workforce wrote Secretary Vilsack stating that schools are struggling to adjust to the new standards for school lunches, and need flexibility to adopt the new rules governing snack foods, and new regulations that govern the School Breakfast Program.

According to USDA, in 2010 about 20% of the $8.5 billion schools spent on food and beverages was for "a la carte" or offered outside of the school lunch and breakfast programs. For more information, contact Saunders at rsaunders@idfa.org or (202) 220-3553.