WASHINGTON - Kids, your days of blowing off those healthier school lunches and filling up on cookies from the vending machine are numbered. The government is onto you.
For the first time, the Agriculture Department is telling schools what sorts of snacks they can sell. The new restrictions announced Thursday fill a gap in nutrition rules that allowed many students to load up on fat, sugar and salt despite the existing guidelines for healthy meals.
"Parents will no longer have to worry that their kids are using their lunch money to buy junk food and junk drinks at school," said Margo Wootan, a nutrition lobbyist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest who lobbied for the new rules.
In this May 3, 2006 file photo, a student purchases a brown sugar Pop-Tart from a vending machine in the hallway outside the school cafeteria, in Wichita, Kan. High-calorie sports drinks and candy bars will be removed from school vending machines and cafeteria lines as soon as next year, replaced with diet drinks, granola bars and other healthier items the Agriculture Department said Thursday.
That doesn't mean schools will be limited to doling out broccoli and brussels sprouts.
Snacks that still make the grade include granola bars, low-fat tortilla chips, fruit cups and 100 percent fruit juice. And high school students can buy diet versions of soda, sports drinks and iced tea.
But say goodbye to some beloved school standbys, such as doughy pretzels, chocolate chip cookies and those little ice cream cups with their own spoons. Some may survive in low-fat or whole wheat versions. The idea is to weed out junk food and replace it with something with nutritional merit.
The bottom line, says Wootan: "There has to be some food in the food."
Still, 17-year-old Vanessa Herrera is partial to the Cheez-It crackers and sugar-laden Vitaminwater in her high school's vending machine. Granola bars and bags of peanuts? Not so much.
"I don't think anyone would eat it," said Herrera of Rockaway, N.J.
There are no vending machines at Lauren Jones' middle school in Hoover, Ala., but she said there's an "a la carte" stand that sells chips, ice cream and other snacks.
"Having something sweet to go with your meal is good sometimes," the 13-year-old said, although she also thinks that encouraging kids to eat healthier is worthwhile.
The federal snack rules don't take effect until the 2014-15 school year, but there's nothing to stop schools from making changes earlier.
Some students won't notice much difference. Many schools already are working to improve their offerings. Thirty-nine states have some sort of snack food policy in place.
Rachel Snyder, 17, said earlier this year her school in Washington, Ill., stripped its vending machines of sweets. She misses the pretzel-filled M&M's.
"If I want a sugary snack every now and then," Snyder said, "I should be able to buy it."
The federal rules put calorie, fat, sugar and sodium limits on almost everything sold during the day at 100,000 schools - expanding on the previous rules for meals. The Agriculture Department sets nutritional standards for schools that receive federal funds to help pay for lunches, and that covers nearly every public school and about half of private ones.
One oasis of sweetness and fat will remain: anything students bring from home, from bagged lunches to birthday cupcakes.
The Agriculture Department was required to draw up the rules under a law passed by Congress in 2010, championed by first lady Michelle Obama, as part of the government's effort to combat childhood obesity.