You’ve likely run into the new USDA snack rules that went into effect this year, and if you aren’t sure how they impact your group, trust us, you aren’t alone.

There’s been a lot of confusion about the new snack rules, so we asked Dr. Janey Thornton, deputy under secretary of food, nutrition, and consumer service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to explain what groups need to know. Here’s what she told us:

Local rules can differ state to state.

The USDA issued snack rules in response to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. States are allowed to implement these rules based on their own criteria. As a result, states may:

  • Adopt the USDA rule in their entirety;

  • Establish rules based on these USDA rules but incorporate state-specific rules, restrictions, or exemptions, which would allow PTOs and PTAs to sell snacks as part of fundraisers during the school day and under specific conditions.

As a result, parent groups cannot look to the federal snack rules alone to determine what rules apply to them. They need the rules issued by their state.

PTOs and PTAs can get rules from their local school districts.

  • Call your school district headquarters or superintendent’s office and ask for information on snack rules. The head of nutritional services (titles will vary) should be able to provide PTOs and PTAs with answers to snack-related questions.

  • If you are not helped by the school district, contact your state’s education department and ask for current snack rules.

Groups should ask the following questions:

  • Has the school district fully adopted the USDA rules or does it have its own set of rules?

  • Can you provide documentation?

  • Are there any state exemptions? This question is key. According to the USDA’s Dr. Thornton, many states have not yet established exemptions. But, they are allowed to set up “reasonable” exemptions that would allow parent groups to hold occasional food fundraisers at specific times, including during the school day.

Also, if a PTO or PTA discovers there are no state exemptions, it can petition the state to consider implementing exemptions to allow for occasional in-school fundraisers.

Check to see if the state and federal rules differ on these key issues:

  • Time and place: The USDA rules do not have any bearing on PTO and PTA fundraisers that take place after school hours and off school property.

  • Sharing versus selling: Groups can provide snacks for celebrations and parties as long as the school allows it and the items are provided for free.

  • Ability to consume: The federal rules allow groups to sell food products during school hours that cannot be consumed in their current state, meaning items like frozen cookie dough or frozen pizza can be sold.

  • Adjusting the recipe: Recipes for snack foods like popcorn can be tweaked to meet the new nutritional standards and sold during school hours.

For additional information on snack rules, check the USDA’s “set the record straight” blog issued in August, and our coverage of it.

The USDA’s Smart Snacks in Schools document is a useful resource. It provides nutritional information on a variety of snacks. Also, a Smart Snacks FAQ document offers insights on how the snack rules were established.