Schools > Food Landscape in Schools


When most people think of food in schools, the lunch room comes to mind. In the last few decades, food in schools has extended far beyond the cafeteria. Determining who is selling or serving food at school, and which regulations apply to which venues, can be confusing. Here is a guide to help you identify the different sources of food and the relevant nutrition standards.

In the Classroom

The most difficult food to regulate in schools is the food that is not sold but, rather, brought in by parents to celebrate a holiday or birthday or given out by teachers as a reward. Unfortunately, many teachers continue to use candy, pizza parties, soda and other types of junk food as learning and performance incentives.

Creative adults can reward or praise students while promoting a healthy lifestyle. These resources provide alternatives to using food as reward or punishment:

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Competitive Foods

Smart Snacks

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 requires standards for the nutritional quality of foods that can be sold to children during the school day.  In June 2013 the USDA published an Interim Final Rule outlining the new standards, which are named Smart Snacks in School.  These standards apply to all foods sold in schools during school hours outside of the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program, including vending machines and a la carte items.

Under the Smart Snacks in School standards:

-       Any food sold in schools must meet at least one of the following criteria:

  • A “whole grain-rich” grain product
  • Has a fruit, vegetables, dairy product, or protein food as the first ingredient
  • A combination food that contains at least ¼ cup fruit an/or vegetable
  • Contains 10% daily value of one of the nutrients of public health concern in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans – calcium, potassium, vitamin D, or dietary fiber.

-       Foods must meet several nutrient requirements, including limits on calories, sodium, fat, and sugar.

-       Accompaniments to items sold, such as cream cheese, salad dressing, or butter, must be included in the nutrient profile as part of the food item sold.

-       Beverages sold in schools are limited to water, low fat or fat free milk, 100% fruit and vegetable juice, and other no or low-calorie beverage options. 

The standards are limited to food sold during school hours.  They apply to foods sold as part of fundraisers, however the standards provide an exemption (determined by state agencies) for infrequent fundraisers that do not meet the standards.  More information on Smart Snacks in Schools can be found at:  The complete Final Interim Rule can be found at:

The Alliance for a Healthier Generation has launched the Smart Snacks Product Calculator, a tool that takes the guesswork out of evaluating products based on the new USDA Smart Snacks in School Guidelines. 

Users can enter product information, answer a few questions, and determine whether a snack, side, or entrée item meets the new USDA guidelines. Results from the calculator have been determined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to be accurate in assessing product compliance with the federal requirements for Smart Snacks in School.

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Foods sold specifically as fundraisers are difficult to regulate because sometimes the foods, such as candy bars sold door-to-door, are not actually distributed on school grounds.  TheSmart Snacks in School standards for competitive foods set by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 apply to foods sold as part of fundraisers, however they are limited to foods sold during school hours.  Additionally, the standards provide an exemption, as determined by state agencies, for infrequent fundraisers that do not meet the standards.

Here are some resources on healthy and unhealthy fundraising:

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State Legislation

In recent years, state bodies have attempted to legislate nutrition standards for the foods and beverages that are sold in schools outside of the National School Lunch Program. Different states have tried different strategies. For example, Connecticut has legislated beverage distribution: only water, 100 percent juice, and milk are to be sold in schools. Snack sales are managed differently through an opt-in program: participating schools sell only approved snacks, and in exchange receive additional state reimbursement for the lunch program.

Visit the Rudd Center's Legislation Database to search for legislation filed by Congress, states, and select cities and counties on school foods and beverages.

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Food Marketing in Schools

Advertising or marketing in preschools and elementary, middle and high schools may only be for foods and beverages that meet nutrition guidelines.  School marketing includes food and beverage advertising and other marketing, such as the name or depiction of products, brands, logos, trade marks, or spokespersons or characters, on any property or facility owned or leased by the school district or school (such as school buildings, athletic fields, school buses, parking lots, or other facilities) and used at any time for school-related activities, including, but not limited to marketing on or through:

  • Signs, scoreboards, or posters
  • Curricula, textbooks, websites promoted for educational purposes, or other educational materials (both printed and electronic)  ex., Skittles counting books, McDonald’s playsets
  • Vending machines, food or beverage cups or containers, food display racks, coolers
  • Equipment, uniforms, school supplies ex. pencils, notebooks, textbook covers
  • Advertisements in school publications, on school radio stations, in-school television, computer screen savers and/or school-sponsored Internet sites, or announcements on the public announcement (PA) system ex. Channel One
  • Fundraisers and corporate-sponsored programs that encourage students and their families to sell, purchase or consume products and/or provide funds to schools in exchange for consumer purchases of those products ex. McTeacher’s night, Labels for Education, Box Tops for Education
  • Corporate incentive programs that provide children with free or discounted foods or beverages ex. Pizza Hut Book It! Program 
  • Sponsorship of materials, programs, events, or teams
  • Market research activities
  • Free samples, taste-tests, or coupons


Some products distributed or sold in schools may be special formulations that meet the nutritional standards for schools but are not available to the general public.  For example, companies may provide low-sugar formulations of popular breakfast cereals to the School Breakfast Program.  However, these formulations are not the same ones sold commercially in grocery stores.

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