By Winnie Yu and Lynya Floyd

If your kid can’t buy a chocolate bar between classes, will he opt for trail mix instead? Here’s the new debate over access to snacks.

You can control what your kids eat when they’re at home, but how about when they’re at school? (And we’re not just talking about lunchbox swaps). Some experts believe removing indulgent “competitive foods” from schools—like the treats sold in vending machines, at stores and on a la carte lines—help kids make healthier eating choices. And it’s a possibility the USDA is considering as they prepare to announce new national guidelines restricting those types of items this year.

Regulators might be hoping for the kind of change seen in California, where state laws have banned the sale of sweetened beverages and limited snack foods since 2009. California teens eat 158 fewer calories a day than kids in states without these rules, according to a study in the Archives of Adolescent and Pediatric Medicine. However, some experts say access doesn’t mean excess. A recent analysis of data on 20,000 middle school students in New Jersey showed that having junk food in schools didn’t lead to weight gain.

We asked Jessica Donze Black, R.D., director of the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project to give us more information about what’s coming down the pipeline and why it’s important for moms to get involved.

Q. Why is the USDA regulating “competitive foods” in schools?

A. Congress directed the USDA to update the standards as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010. The USDA needs to do this because in addition to the meals they eat in school, 40% of kids eat snack foods at school.

Q. Will restricting foods lead kids to eat healthier or will they just look elsewhere for indulgent snacks?

A. I think evidence shows this can work. Some of it has to do with the approach: involving kids in the practice. Letting them sample things and taste test foods. Kids will eat from the options that are available, so why not make them all healthy choices?

Q. What should parents be aware of when the recommended regulations come out?

A. We want standards to reflect the best nutrition science of day: reasonable calorie and fat caps. Reducing sodium over time. Limiting added sugars. Promoting the foods we know kids need more of such as fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy. The most important thing parents can do is be informed. What you’re looking for is big picture. Ask yourself: “Will these changes improve the school foods available to my kid?”

Q. Why should parents write in to the USDA with their comments and questions once the new regulations are announced?

A. Because the USDA reads every comment submitted. If you have an opinion—and that’s a great thing!—they’ll read and catalog it and when they finalize the rule they’ll take it into account.

You can tell the USDA how you feel about the proposed changes (once they’re made public) by going to to post your comments and questions. Or post a comment here and let us know what you think!

Lyna Floyd is the health director at Family Circle magazine, and Winnie Yu is a freelance health writer.