Smart Snacks: Is Your Fundraiser, Vending Machine, or School Store USDA Compliant?

Beginning July 1, 2014 schools participating in the National School Lunch and Breakfast Program (that’s most schools) must ensure all foods sold to kids during the school day (called “Smart Snacks”) meet U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) nutrition guidelines. But what does it all mean?  Which foods are considered a “smart snack”? And how do I know if my PTA’s fundraiser is compliant?  We get it – it can be confusing! But we’re hoping to clear up some confusion here and get you the resources you need to be successful. If you don’t see an answer here, feel free to ask a question in the comments.

And stay tuned for additional resources to help make sure your PTA is ready to help support healthier foods in school!

What foods are you talking about when you say “Smart Snacks”? 

For the purpose of USDA guidelines, the foods that must meet minimum nutrition guidelines are those sold during the school day in school stores, vending machines, fundraisers, and a la carte lunch lines (think “grab and go” food items not part of a full meal). There are already updated USDA nutrition guidelines for the federally-subsidized school meal.

Foods sold outside of the school day (we’ll get to that in a second) – do not need to meet USDA guidelines.

Wait, did you say fundraisers?

Yes, fundraisers will need to meet the nutrition guidelines if they are sold to kids during the school day or immediately before and after school and are intended to be eaten on the spot.

What do you mean when you say “before and after” school?

The guidelines apply to any food sold

  • on school grounds before the school day begins
  • during the school day; and
  • 30 minutes after the traditional school day ends (think unhealthy fundraisers or unhealthy vending machines as soon as the bell rings).

What about our fundraisers and foods sold on school grounds but not during school day?

The USDA guidelines do not apply to afterschool or weekend events like football games and musical performances, so long as they are not before school or 30 minutes after the traditional school day ends. Your school may have additional restrictions on what can be sold on school grounds, so it’s always important to check first. Additionally, many PTAs are adopting healthy fundraising and event practices. The USDA guidelines are scientifically-backed based on nutrition needs for students. Your PTA may want to use the guidelines as a healthy lifestyle resource for your PTA!

What do you mean when you say foods that are intended to be eaten “on the spot”?

The USDA guidelines are only intended to target “ready to eat foods”. If a student is selling a food product through a catalog-type sale where the food is not intended to be eaten by the student at school, it wouldn’t need to meet USDA guidelines. But your local school may have additional restrictions.

But I heard there can be some fundraisers during the school day that don’t meet the guidelines?

Yes, there is flexibility for states to provide exemptions for infrequent school-approved fundraisers that do not meet the nutrition guidelines. Your administrative office may know this number, but you can also check the National Association of State Board of Education (NASBE) database for “fundraising exemptions” under your state. If your state has not determined the number of exemptions allowable, it is automatically zero, meaning that no exemptions are allowed for fundraisers that do not meet nutrition guidelines. 

What about birthday celebrations and food our PTA gives to kids?

While PTA supports healthy food offerings throughout the day, USDA guidelines only apply to foods sold to kids during the school day. So if a parent or other group is providing food free of charge, they do not need to comply with USDA guidelines. Keep in mind that state and local rules apply – and your school may have stronger restrictions on these items.

How do I know if what we’re selling meets the guidelines?

Good news! There is a simple way to check this using this tool from the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. Just enter what kind of product you’re selling (for the purpose of vending machines, school stores or fundraisers, it’s generally going to be a “snack”) and answer a few simple questions. The tool will let you know if your product is compliant. Just make sure to have the nutrition label handy!

Note: State and local regulations can differ and may be stronger. This is only related to USDA guidelines, which are designed to be minimum guidelines that schools must meet. However, schools are allowed to go beyond these guidelines. You should check with your school about additional guidelines or restrictions to vending machines, school stores and fundraisers.  It may also be part of your school’s Local Wellness Policy.

Have a question we didn’t answer? Please ask below and we’ll do our best to answer!

Excited about these changes and want to become more involved? Consider becoming at PTA Champion for Smart School Foods here!

Could your state PTA or council benefit from an in-person training? Shoot us an email at





New Guidance: Tech and Protecting Student Data

In 1981, National PTA’s Board of Directors first adopted a position statement on the importance of protecting student data and privacy. Over three decades later, the growth and use of technology has provided for greater opportunities in the classroom, but also caution from families and education professionals around the protection of student data and privacy. This week, the U.S. Department of Education’s Privacy Technical Assistance Center (PTAC) released new guidance to help school systems and educators interpret and understand laws and best practices in protecting student privacy. 

For today’s post, we hear from Cameron Brenchley from the U.S. Department of Education on the new guidance.

Reposted from Homeroom: The Official Blog of the Department of Education

Today, more than ever, schools and districts are managing a lot of digital data. Some of that has to do with teaching and learning, but there’s plenty more: from bus routes, to food service records, to enrollment and attendance information. Districts and schools are working to be more efficient and smarter about storing and using data. Many have chosen to move data “in the cloud,” meaning off-site data centers that securely store information.

PTAC VideoThis advancement in data storage has created some important and reasonable questions about what steps are being taken to insure that student data is kept secure and private. In a speech yesterday at the Common Sense Media Privacy Zone Conference, in Washington, D.C., Secretary of Education Arne Duncan reaffirmed that school systems “owe families the highest standard of security and privacy.”

What I want to say to you today is that the benefits for students of technological advancement can’t be a trade-off with the security and privacy of our children.

We must provide our schools, teachers and students cutting-edge learning tools. And we must protect our children’s privacy. We can and must accomplish both goals – but we will have to get smarter to do it.

Duncan noted that many school systems are showing leadership on the privacy front, such as the Kansas State Department of Education, which has developed an innovative data quality certification program to train staff on data quality practices and techniques, including privacy and security.

Read Secretary Duncan’s speech – Technology in Education: Privacy and Progress

In a panel following the speech, Acting Deputy Education Sec. Jim Shelton talked with Julie Brill of the Federal Trade Commission about further actions the federal government can take to protect student privacy in education, floating the possibility of joint efforts between the two agencies.

Earlier today, the U.S. Department of Education’s Privacy Technical Assistance Center (PTAC) released new guidance to help school systems and educators interpret and understand the major laws and best practices protecting student privacy while using online educational services. The guidance addresses a range of concerns regarding the security and privacy of student data.

Click here to read the new guidance.

Cameron Brenchley is director of digital strategy at the U.S. Department of Education

The Dish on School Lunch


Recently, we wrote an article discussing the troubling trend of cutting recess and other physical activities from school days. This week, we will discuss school nutrition. Both of these items go hand in hand towards fighting childhood obesity, improving student focus and behavior, and boosting academic achievement.

Between the First Lady’s Let’s Move initiative, the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act passage in 2010 and the many media stories in between, there’s been a lot of coverage about school nutrition, but just how does all of it work?

First, let’s take a look at the history

Despite the many changes you may have heard about over the last year – the federal school meal program is nothing new. In 1946 Congress passed the School Nutrition Act to establish the beginnings of the National School Lunch Program we know today. Ever since then , Congress has reauthorized the program every 5-10 years, making improvements like the addition of breakfast, afterschool feeding programs, and nutrition standards for all foods kids can purchase at school. And while the latest nutrition updates have gained considerable media attention, Congress has been updating nutrition guidelines for school lunches for decades, following the latest nutrition science (known as the Dietary Guidelines for Americans).

Who runs the program?

For the purpose of today’s post, we’ll just focus on the National School Lunch Program.  Most public schools participate in the program, providing meals to over 29 million children each school day. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) administers the program at the federal level. In your state, the program is most likely administered by the state education agency, working directly with the school food personnel in your school district.

How does it work?

In exchange for serving meals that meet nutrition guidelines, schools receive reimbursement through cash subsidies and USDA food subsidies. Many of us are aware that schools are subsidized for meals served to students who qualify for free or reduced lunch, but did you realize schools receive a reimbursement for every meal served to students – regardless if they qualify for free or reduced lunch? Here’s the rate for the 2013-2014 School Year:

Family income level: Student eligible for: USDA pays school:
At or below 130 percent of the poverty   level Free Lunch $2.93
Between 130 percent and 185 percent of   the poverty level Reduced-Price $2.53
Above 185 percent the poverty level Full-Price Lunch $ .28

*AK and HI receive higher rates; Schools with 60% or more students qualifying for free/reduced lunch receive additional $ .02 for each meal served. Source: Food Research and Action Center

What are the nutrition guidelines?

Beginning last school year, schools began implementing updated nutrition guidelines in accordance with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. In general, this means that school meals now include more fruits, vegetables and whole grains and less unhealthy fats; the amount of sodium in meals is capped; and the maximum calorie amount is based on grade levels.  The National PTA Parents’ Guide to the National School Lunch Program provides specific details on the nutrition updates.

Why updated nutrition guidelines?

Nutrition guidelines for school meals have been in place for decades. In 2010, child advocates – including PTA members across the country – recognized the grave need to align nutrition guidelines with the most updated nutrition science and pressured Congress to pass the bipartisan Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act.

The facts on childhood obesity are alarmingly clear. Over the past three decades, childhood obesity rates in the United States have tripled. Today, more than 23 million children and teens are overweight or obese. The Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation published research last year showing that, unless Americans change their ways, more than 44 percent of adults will be obese by 2030. Not just overweight, but obese.

So why schools? Not only is nutrition critical to students’ academic success and health, schools are also a place of habit-building whether in the classroom or in the lunchroom. Just as students develop lifelong skills at schools like teamwork, persistence, and critical thinking that transcend into adulthood, habits in the breakfast and lunchroom can carry over far past graduation.

But can schools do this?

Yes! At the end of the 2012-2013 school year, 79% of participating schools across the country reported being in compliance, and in six states there was nearly 100% compliance.  It’s important to keep in mind that the school meals program serves over 29 million students a day.  Accordingly, change isn’t always going to be easy or quick.

What’s the role for parents?

Engage with your kids and your school – just as you would around any other issue in the school. Here are some tips:

Supporting your kids:

  • Review the school menu and ask your child what he or she ate at school.
  • Talk with your child about how the school lunch will make them healthier, stronger and happier. (Elementary/Middle School students)
  • Feed your child more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains at home so they are familiar with them  at school.
  • Volunteer, if possible, at the school during breakfast or lunch times to observe the changes for yourself.
  • Bring the healthy improvements in the cafeteria home with you – ask your kids to point out foods at the grocery store that are served at school.
  • Enjoy as many family meals as possible together – it’s one of the best opportunities to support your child’s health, learning, and social and emotional development.

Supporting your school and other students:

  • Contact your school district or principal and ask how you can support them.
  • Engage other parents to support the school nutrition program by discussing the changes at PTA meetings .
  • Offer to organize a “taste test” of new recipes and foods.
  • Join your school’s wellness committee.
  • If you see something that doesn’t fit with these new guidelines, share the USDA’s information about the new school lunch guidelines with school leaders and thank them for helping your child and every child to be healthier and stronger.
  • And even if you pack your child’s lunch and will continue to do so, bear in mind Standard 4 of the National Family School Partnerships: Speaking up for Every Child. This means that PTA members consider what’s in the best interest for all children. Nearly 20 million students each day depend on the National School Lunch Program for a healthy, nutritious meal.

What’s Next:  

Schools will continue to update and improve the school lunch and breakfast offerings over the school year.  Next school year, nutrition guidelines for school snacks and meal options, including those sold in a la carte lines, vending machines and school stores will also be healthier! Stay tuned to the blog for specific updates related to smarter snacks in school.

Additional Resources:


Mollie Van Lieu a Senior Education Policy Strategist at National PTA. Contact Mollie at

Celebrating Advocacy, the Cornerstone of PTA

Left: The first board of managers at the first national convention in Washington, DC.
Right: Outstanding advocates named at the 2012 Legislative Conference in Washington DC. Image courtesy of Lifetouch.

When was the last time you really thought about the existence of child labor laws, juvenile courts, or the availability of hot lunches in school?

Chances are these issues aren’t at the forefront of your mind. Over the past century, these subjects have become an indelible part of our society, so much so that we rarely think about what life would be like if they weren’t around.  All of these landmark policies for children share a common origin; like most efforts related to kids, they started with a parent or group of parents who had the courage and motivation to demand better for their children.

It’s advocacy and it’s what PTA is all about.

Advocacy has been the cornerstone of PTA’s mission since our founding in 1897, during a time when, for many families, an education for children was simply out of reach. Today, advocacy remains at every level of PTA, culminating each year at the PTA Legislative Conference where National PTA recognizes outstanding advocates from across the country.

When you think about being a champion for change, keep in mind that no effort is too small or too big to be considered advocacy. Advocacy is often a gradual process; when PTA members began their push for child labor laws, the change didn’t happen overnight.  With advocacy, being successful on a year-to-year basis does not always mean that your ultimate goal is met. Advocacy takes patience, a consistent effort, and building blocks toward your goal.

As you think about the past year and what you are most proud of as a member of your PTA, consider filling out a nomination form for the 2013 Advocacy Awards for an outstanding advocate in your PTA. State and local award winners will receive a complimentary trip to the National PTA Legislative Conference and a cash prize to help further advocacy efforts. Individual winners (Shirley Igo and Youth Advocate) will receive complimentary travel and registration to the conference.

If you’re interested in more information, please visit the 2013 Advocacy Awards page on the PTA website.

Nominations are due December 5, 2012.  PTA Advocacy Awards are recognized in the following categories: Individual (Shirley Igo); Local/District/Regional; State; and Youth.

Mollie Van Lieu is an Advocacy Specialist at National PTA in Alexandria, Virginia. Contact Mollie at