An unfunded mandate: Are Massachusetts schools adopting new nutritional standards?

April 10, 2015

Lindsay Rosenfeld of the Institute for Child, Youth and Family Policy is a co-investigator on the NOURISH study (Nutrition Opportunities to Understand Reforms Involving Student Health), a two-year policy evaluation which looks at the impact of Massachusetts school food and beverage reform on school compliance and student eating habits. In 2012, Massachusetts adopted comprehensive school competitive food and beverage standards as well as new "Smart Snacks in Schools" standards. While unfunded mandates in school food regulations are common, the NOURISH study explores the impact of this state mandate on students, schools and school district budgets. Findings may be particularly useful for schools across the nation considering how to implement the new USDA "Smart Snacks in Schools" standards. She discussed the project and initial findings with the Heller communications team following a presentation of preliminary NOURISH data at a Heller School Tuesday Talk last month.

Heller Communications: Why study school nutritional standards?

Lindsay Rosenfeld: There are many ways to promote child equity and good health. One way is to understand a place and space where most kids spend a lot of time: school. Many kids buy food at school, especially competitive foods (such as a la carte items and vending machine snacks and beverages). To know whether and how the school environment impacts kids, we need to examine school practices, including the nutritional standards that food service directors must follow each and every day. 

HC: You were specifically looking at the implementation of the 2012 Massachusetts standards. What was the big takeaway for your team?

LR: The big takeaway: complying with healthier food and beverage standards is absolutely possible. Advanced planning, district support, and resources for planning are key!

HC: Were the findings what you expected, or were there any surprises?

LR: We didn't really know what to expect. In 2012, Massachusetts implemented some of the strictest standards around healthy competitive foods and beverages in the nation. This was great for kids' health, but involved lots of planning on the part of schools. We see that schools generally made significant changes. Overall, they increased food and beverage compliance to the new 2012 Massachusetts standards. Also, the financial impact of complying with the new standards (in a subset of schools studied) seems to be revenue-neutral. That is, there doesn't appear to be a negative financial impact of complying with the new standards, which was certainly a big concern for schools. Interestingly, every single school, whether they complied with the new standards or not, consulted the Stalker A-List (a free online resource available through the Stalker Institute at Framingham State University). This was particularly interesting to us because it showed the power of this list, which displays the foods and beverages that are compliant with the new Massachusetts standards.

HC: What can the Massachusetts nutritional school food standards experience tell us about how the USDA's new Smart Snacks regulation will fare?

LR: I think our results suggest good things for the new USDA Smart Snacks program. That is, healthier food and beverage standards are feasible to implement, seemingly without overall negative financial impacts. In addition, I think we learned a few best practices from food service directors about what makes this process possible, particularly advanced planning, school district support (such as wellness committees), and resources to assist in planning, such as the Stalker A-List.