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We’re not talking about an episode on the Food Network or some strange food-related reality show on ESPN. Competitive foods are foods sold in schools that compete for students’ dollars with nutritionally-regulated breakfast and lunch programs. Foods and beverages sold through vending machines, a la carte lines (foods sold individually in the cafeteria), snack carts, concessions, school stores and other fundraisers are considered competitive foods. Think about it like this: If your child has a cupcake and ice cream at a friend’s birthday party, that treat competes with their appetite for dinner, and definitely competes any chance for dessert.
Though not what you’d typically think of as a "fundraiser," food and beverage sales to students during the school day—outside of the school meal program or after school at family or athletic events—are often designed to raise funds by different school groups to support specific student needs and activities. All competitive foods and beverages sold to students on campus during the school day have to meet the USDA’s Smart Snacks in School standards. But even if your school is meeting that national standard for competitive foods, there’s still a lot of variation in the nutritional quality of allowable items.
In addition to understanding the Smart Snacks in School standards and how your school is implementing them, here are a few tips to help you get smart about making sure competitive foods at your school are healthy foods:
A la carte lines are usually operated by nutrition services. However, concessions, vending machines and school stores may be run by the school, nutrition services, PTO/PTA, booster clubs, a sports program or another group. Find out which group is in charge at your school.
Once you start a dialogue, suggest restricting the hours that school stores and vending machines are open and available. Many schools do not allow access during breakfast and lunch service times; others block access to less nutritious items during the entire school day.
Wherever competitive foods are available, see if healthy items can be priced cheaper than less nutritious options. Studies have found that lowering the price of fruits, vegetables and low-fat snacks resulted in a significant increase in the sales of these foods without a decrease in total revenue.
Learn more about Smart Snacks in School from the USDA.
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