'Healthy eating' rules just expanded: School vending machines, fundraisers will be included

'Healthy eating' rules just expanded: School vending machines, fundraisers will be included

June 29th, 2014 by Kevin Hardy in Local Regional News

Kenneth Bates, an 11th-grader at Soddy-Daisy High School, buys a drink from the school vending machines in this May file photo. New federal regulations are going to change school fundraising that involve food sales as well as vending machines in schools.

Photo by Erin O. Smith/Times Free Press.

First it was the chicken patties, biscuits and french fries.

Now federal regulations are moving beyond the lunchroom and targeting doughnuts, candy bars and cookies sold in schools.

This fall, the federal government's push toward healthy eating in public schools will spill over into vending machines and school fundraisers. The new rules, which represent the first time vending machine snacks have been regulated in Tennessee high schools, mean that local public high schools could lose some of the much-needed revenue stream provided by machine sales of chips, beef jerky and candy bars.

But the changes stretch beyond high school and could potentially affect all public schools, as the groups that sell snacks before school or during the day -- the band, student leadership clubs and booster clubs -- may now have to find other ways to raise money.

Some sugary and fatty foods are still safe. The shift won't affect after-school fundraisers such as football concession stand sales. Students still can bring in cupcakes or brownies for classroom birthday parties. And take-home fundraisers such as cookie dough and popcorn tin sales likely will remain untouched.

But those fundraising items that are consumed at school, like doughnuts or candy bars, will be limited or banned entirely.

The change in vending machine standards comes as the latest blow for many high schools, which lost thousands of dollars in soda sales when regular sodas were replaced several years ago with sugar-free and diet versions.

Like the strict regulations that have sunk participation in school lunch programs across the country, vending machine items will now have to meet certain calorie, fat, sugar and sodium limits. Regular chips, Pop Tarts and candy bars are out. And only certain healthy snacks, such as whole-grain cookies, granola bars and baked chips will be allowed.

Before the change to diet sodas, Soddy-Daisy High School's vending machines would pull in nearly $40,000 a year -- money that helped pay the monthly phone bill or purchase copier paper. Now that revenue is down to about $9,000 annually. And Principal Danny Gilbert worries that the stricter regulations could hurt the bottom line even more.

"What we're getting now we need desperately," Gilbert said. "It's about one-fourth of what we used to get."

In Hamilton County, the school district funds teaching positions, maintains building and pays utility bills. But for other costs of running a school -- including copiers, phone bills and school supplies -- the schools have their own budgets, which often don't come close to covering annual expenses. That's why money from school fees, vending machines and fundraisers is so important.

"We spend $3,000 a month just on copiers, paper and ink," Gilbert said. "So when you look at what we get, it's difficult to run the budget."

And schools are losing other sources of revenue, too.

Ooltewah High School Principal Jim Jarvis said fewer families are paying school or classroom fees, which schools legally cannot force parents to pay. And in the age of selfies and online photo albums, commissions from school portraits are down.

"Our costs continue and our income continues to decline," Jarvis said.

In Tennessee, high schools have never had regulations on vending machine snacks, a la carte cafeteria items or fundraisers. Federal law allows state officials to offer limited exemptions, said Carolyn Childs, Hamilton County's director of school nutrition.

But even with up to 30 days to skirt the rules -- as the state is considering now -- the new regulations will touch all schools. Some high schools have in-house coffeeshops that sell sugary pastries. Or home economics classes that sell breakfast sandwiches before school. At some elementary schools, the PTA sells Chick-fil-A biscuits in the morning drop-off line.

"It's going to be really restrictive," Childs said.

Schools that don't abide by the new rules could lose funding. While the school nutrition department doesn't operate vending machines -- the schools themselves do that -- it's the cafeteria that would ultimately face penalties for schools not complying with the new rules. So cafeterias could lose a piece of the millions they receive in federal funding annually.

"Unfortunately, it comes back on us," Childs said. "They can penalize us financially."

Childs said the latest regulations are indicative of earlier changes to the lunchroom. Federal regulations have pushed fruits, vegetables and whole grains, while limiting fats, sodium, calories and sugar on the lunch line. But Childs said kids just aren't ready for the change in eating.

"It's all good in theory," Childs said, "but the reality is it's not being accepted by kids."

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.