Flamin’ Hot Cheetos top some Chicago Public School vending machines | WBEZ
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Flamin' Hot Cheetos top some Chicago Public School vending machines

Last week Michigan became the latest state to opt out of the federal Smart Snack standards. The rules regulate what can be sold in school fundraisers and vending machines that help schools pay the bill. More than 22 states have pushed for some kind of exemption from these rules since they went into effect last July.

So just how stringent are they?

The snacks must be:

  • “whole grain rich” if they are grain-based, meaning 50 percent whole grain
  • no more than 200 calories
  • no more than 230 mgs of sodium
  • no more than 35 percent sugar, by weight
  • lower in fat, meaning no more than a third of their calories can come from fat

So all that’s left is kale, right?

Well, not really. In fact, under these new rules, two of the top sellers in some Chicago Public Schools are reformulated Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and Kellogg’s Pop Tarts. This is not exactly what Dr. Virginia Stallings envisioned when she chaired the Institute of Medicine committee whose recommendations would form the backbone of the Smart Snack rules. 

“I thought the top sellers might be things that had more nutrients in them than Flamin’ Hot Cheetos,” said Stallings, who is a professor of pediatrics at Childrens Hospital of Philadelphia. “But let me say that one of the things we were absolutely expecting and appreciate is that the food companies would look at these recommendations and they would, in fact, reformulate their products.” 

To Stallings, the reformulated Cheetos, in smaller portions, with more whole grain, less sodium and less fat, represent an evidence-based improvement over the old formula.

But to folks like Lindsey Haynes-Maslow, a health analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists, the snacks represent   mixed messages to kids.

“I think it says to them that, of course, I can eat these. And when they are outside the school, if they see the same item at a grocery store, they don’t recognize the difference,” she said. “Even more concerning, is that their parents don’t either, according to a Rudd Center study showing that many parents are misguided into thinking that these [reformulated] items are good for their kids.”

To see this in action, all you have to do is drop by a Chicago Public high school vending machine where reformulated Pop Tarts and Flamin’ Hot Cheeto Puffs occupy several slots. In an interview with WBEZ Wednesday, CPS’s head of Nutrition Services Leslie Fowler said she had no idea schools were selling the snacks.

The district, she said, has prohibited reformulated snacks for about a year. Still, a list of approved snacks that CPS provided to WBEZ on Wednesday includes Baked Cheetos and Reduced Fat Nilla Wafers. Another list the district sent to WBEZ earlier Wednesday included reduced fat Cool Ranch Doritos as an approved snack. But when WBEZ noted that snack was also “reformulated,” the CPS official claimed she’d given us the wrong list.

To add to the confusion, Fowler told WBEZ Wednesday that the “only Cheeto that is approved is the whole grain puff,” which are not included on the latest list but are featured in several district machines.

Regardless of what CPS rules actually are, it’s clear that the much maligned Smart Snack rules still leave plenty of room for things like reformulated Flamin Hot Cheetos. And while it’s true the reformulation reduces fat and salt, the snacks still feature six artificial colors and nearly 30 ingredients.

New York University Nutrition professor Marion Nestle thinks part of the problem is that the rules encourage companies to hit certain nutrient numbers rather than providing real food.  

“This is a classic case of nutritionism,” she said. “If you set up nutrition standards, the food industry can do anything to meet those standards and this is a perfect example of that...So this is a better-for-you junk food. And, of course, the question is: is that a good choice? And no, of course, it’s not.” 

When asked to discuss the issue, Cheeto maker Frito Lay would not grant WBEZ an interview. Instead, the company wrote “We offer a variety of Smart Snack compliant products in schools in portion-controlled sizes to suit a variety of tastes, including the Reduced Fat, Whole Grain Rich Flamin' Hot Cheetos.”

Lane Tech Senior Tyra Bosnic said she’s disappointed in the vending machines at her school. She wished they better mirrored the machines she’s seen in Europe.

“They have better drinks there and there’s more water accessible,” she said. “There they have things like pumpkin seeds in the machines. Here we just have gross, whole grain Pop Tarts and Cheeto Puffs.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said it couldn’t comment on the wisdom of selling Cheetos at school, but that its latest rules have already helped kids eat “healthier.”

It’s not just kids who are drawn to the  orange curly snacks. For cash strapped school administrators, Cheetos can  deliver plenty of green. Under the current CPS deal with Avcoa Vending, schools  get a 20 percent commission on all sales; and that can add up to more than $10,000 in discretionary spending a year. So, why not stock this teenage favorite?

“Because schools have an obligation to teach children how to be successful adults,” says Rochelle Davis of Chicago’s Healthy Schools Campaign. “And learning about how to be healthy is a critical part of that.”

Still, one vending machine rep noted that kids are going to buy Cheetos at the corner store and that few entities need money more than schools. Stallings, who wrote the original recommendations, questions whether schools should be selling any snacks at all.

“Selling food to children outside of the school lunch and breakfast should not be a source of revenue for the school,” she said. “That’s exploiting the children’s health.”

Instead, advocates like Rochelle Davis of Chicago’s Healthy Schools Campaign suggest raising the revenue through things like plant sales and dance-a-thons.

“I just got an email about a school trying a dance-a-thon,” she said. “So the kids are going to be up and moving and the community is going to be supporting that instead of a traditional fundraiser.”

But can a dance-a-thon rake in the cash like Flamin’ Hot Cheetos? With all the resistance against even these initial rules, it may be some time before we get to find out. 

Clarification, 3/26/2015: After this story was published Chicago Public Schools officials claimed CPS uses vendors other than Avcoa. They have not yet responded who those vendors are.

Monica Eng is a WBEZ producer and co-host of the Chewing The Fat podcast. Follow her at @monicaeng or write to her at meng@wbez.org

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