FARMINGTON — As San Juan County students head back to school over the next several days, they may see changes in the food served at their school cafeterias and sold in the vending machines.

New federal standards are expected to affect local school food programs by tightening nutrition requirements for meals and snacks and governing the types of items that can be sold during school-day fundraisers.

On July 1, the Smart Snacks in Schools nutritional standards were implemented as part of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Under the law, the U.S. Department of Agriculture was directed to establish a set of nutritional standards for all foods and beverages sold during the school day. Schools that fail to comply with the new regulations could lose their federal funding, according to local officials.

Vee Sandyval serves lunch on Thursday at Heights Middle School in Farmington.
Vee Sandyval serves lunch on Thursday at Heights Middle School in Farmington. (Jon Austria /The Daily Times)

Changes to school nutrition in the last two years focused on breakfast and lunches, said Kevin Concannon, undersecretary of the USDA's Food and Nutrition Services, in a phone interview on Wednesday.

This year's changes will apply to à la carte lines, snack bars, vending machines and club fundraisers during the school day. About 50 million students nationwide will be affected by the changes.

"I think it makes the right choice an easier choice for students," Concannon said. "It's all a part of an effort to support a whole, healthy food environment throughout the school day."

Jaynelle Minor, the Farmington Municipal Schools District's student nutrition supervisor, said it has been difficult to adhere to the new guidelines. But, she added, the changes will help students eat healthier snacks.

The new standards require foods sold in schools to adhere to at least one of the following guidelines. Foods served must:

· be a whole grain product;

· list the first ingredient as a fruit, vegetable or dairy or protein product;

· contain at least one-fourth of a cup of fruits or vegetables; or

· contain at least 10 percent of the daily value of calcium, potassium, vitamin D or dietary fiber.

New limits are also imposed for calories, sodium, fat and sugar in foods served.

Nick Miller-Dawes, second from the left, Rowan Kalmbach and Elijah Michael wait in, Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014, with their school lunch at Heights Middle
Nick Miller-Dawes, second from the left, Rowan Kalmbach and Elijah Michael wait in, Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014, with their school lunch at Heights Middle School in Farmington. ( Jon Austria / The Daily Times)

"A lot of our schools have snack bars," Minor said. "They were able to sell things like nachos and pickles, and now they have to comply with Smart Snacks."

Minor said the district previously sold items like ice cream bars, cookies, popcorn and jerky, but the new standards remove those foods from schools. Minor said one of the reasons the USDA implemented the new standards is to counter the high rate of obesity and diabetes among students.

"This group of students right now will not outlive their parents because of the diabetes rate and the obesity rate," Minor said. "We got to do something to help these students right now."

Concannon said about 30 percent of American students are overweight, and it could compromise their quality of life and overall health.

"For us, as a government entity that provides billions of dollars in food aid domestically, we should try to do all we can based on the best science advice," Concannon said.

District staff have also expressed confusion over the new rules for fundraisers.

New nutrition standards govern all food fundraisers that take place on school grounds during the school day. The school day is defined as starting at midnight and continuing until 30 minutes after school.

"For a lot of schools, that's where they get their activity money," Minor said of the food fundraisers.

The nutrition standards do not cover after-school fundraisers for sports and clubs, like drama, or off-campus fundraisers, such as students taking orders for cookie dough or frozen pizzas.

The state of New Mexico allows each school one exempt fundraiser per semester in which the nutrition standards do not apply.

Concannon said the USDA left it up to states to determine how many fundraisers can be exempt from the nutrition standards.

There is no limit on the number of fundraisers students can host during the school day to sell foods that meet the nutrition standards.

"There are different ways to raise money, not just selling food," Concannon said. "If they chose to sell food, if it's healthy, they can chose to do that."

Heights Middle School Assistant Principal Donny Ortiz and Shiprock High School Principal Rick Edwards both said their respective schools will probably use their exemptions on a school-wide event, like a field day where concessions are sold or a fundraiser for multiple clubs.

"Any fundraiser that might involve something that is consumable like that is going to be an out-of-school fundraiser, and the school board does a really good job of policing that," Edwards said.

The USDA does not regulate parents bringing their students lunch from restaurants, Minor said. Parents are still allowed to bring items like cake or cupcakes for a student's birthday.

Joshua Kellogg covers education for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627 and Follow him @jkelloggdt on Twitter.