WASHINGTON - Kids, your days of blowing off those healthier school lunches and filling up on cookies from the vending machine are numbered. The government is onto you.
For the first time, the Agriculture Department is telling schools what sorts of snacks they can sell. The new restrictions announced Thursday fill a gap in nutrition rules that allowed many students to load up on fat, sugar and salt despite the existing guidelines for healthy meals.
"Parents will no longer have to worry that their kids are using their lunch money to buy junk food and junk drinks at school," said Margo Wootan, a nutrition lobbyist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest who pushed for the new rules.
That doesn't mean schools will be limited to doling out broccoli and Brussels sprouts.
Snacks that still make the grade include granola bars, low-fat tortilla chips, fruit cups and 100 percent fruit juice. And high school students can buy diet versions of soda, sports drinks and iced tea.
But say goodbye to some beloved school standbys, such as doughy pretzels, chocolate chip cookies and those little ice cream cups with their own spoons. Some may survive in low-fat or whole-wheat versions. The idea is to weed out junk food and replace it with something with nutritional merit.
The bottom line, says Wootan: "There has to be some food in the food."
Still, 17-year-old Vanessa Herrera is partial to the Cheez-It crackers and sugar-laden Vitaminwater in her high school's vending machine. Granola bars and bags of peanuts? Not so much.
"I don't think anyone would eat it," said Herrera of Rockaway, N.J.
The federal snack rules don't take effect until the 2014-15 school year, but there's nothing to stop schools from making changes earlier.
The rule announced Thursday will apply to "a la carte" lines in school cafeterias, vending machines, snack bars and any other food sold regularly on campus. It won't apply to fundraisers, after-school concession stands, class parties or foods brought from home.
A separate set of rules already applies to meals in the main lunch line.
Some students won't notice much difference. Many schools already are working to improve their offerings. Thirty-nine states have some sort of snack food policy in place.
Rachel Snyder, 17, said earlier this year her school in Washington, Ill., stripped its vending machines of sweets. She misses the pretzel-filled M&M's.
"If I want a sugary snack every now and then," Snyder said, "I should be able to buy it."
The federal rules put calorie, fat, sugar and sodium limits on almost everything sold during the day at 100,000 schools - expanding on the previous rules for meals. The Agriculture Department sets nutritional standards for schools that receive federal funds to help pay for lunches, and that covers nearly every public school and about half of private ones.
Last year's rules making main lunch fare more nutritious faced criticism from some conservatives, including some Republicans in Congress, who said the government shouldn't be telling kids what to eat. Mindful of that backlash, the Agriculture Department left one of the more controversial parts of the rule, the regulation of in-school fundraisers like bake sales, up to the states.
The rules have the potential to transform what many children eat at school.
In addition to meals already subject to nutrition standards, most lunchrooms also have "a la carte" lines that sell other foods - often greasy foods like mozzarella sticks and nachos. That gives students a way to circumvent the healthy lunches. Under the rules, those lines could offer healthier pizzas, low-fat hamburgers, fruit cups or yogurt and similar fare.
One of the biggest changes will be a near-ban on high-calorie sports drinks. Many beverage companies added sports drinks to school vending machines after sodas were pulled in response to criticism from the public-health community.
The rule would allow sales in high schools of only sodas and sports drinks that contain 60 calories or less in a 12-ounce serving, banning the highest-calorie versions of those beverages.
Low-calorie sports drinks - Gatorade's G2, for example - and diet drinks will be allowed in high school.
Elementary and middle schools will be allowed to sell only water, carbonated water, 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice, and low fat and fat-free milk.
what's in and what's out under the new rules
• Snack cakes
• Most cookies
• Most pretzels
• Most ice cream and ice cream treats
• Deep-fried, high-fat foods
• Greasy pizza
• Many juice drinks
• High-calorie sodas
• High-calorie sports drinks
• Baked potato chips
• Trail mix
• Dried fruits
• Fruit cups
• Healthier pizzas with whole grain crust
• 100 percent juice drinks
• Baked lower-fat french fries
• Diet soda (high schools)
• Diet sports drinks (high schools)
Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture
new school snack rules
The government for the first time is proposing broad new standards to make sure all foods sold in schools are healthful.
Under the new rules, most food sold in school will now be subject to fat, calorie, sugar and sodium limits. Snack foods will have to be less than 200 calories and have some nutritional value instead of being mostly empty calories.
Some examples of snacks likely to miss or make the requirements:
Before the new rules After the new rules
Chocolate sandwich cookies Light popcorn
Total calories 286 161
Empty calories 182 17
Chocolate bar Granola bar
Total calories 235 95
Empty calories 112 32
Regular cola Flavored water
Total calories 136 0
Empty calories 126 0
Source: United States Department of Agriculture