The School Food Environment

October 30, 2012

From the upcoming issue of Food, Nutrition & Science, schools show improvement in nutrition programs.

Many practices in the school food environment have improved in recent years, according to a recent study from The University of Illinois at Chicago and published in the September issue of The Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Researchers found that school garden programs, farm-to-school programs and initiatives to include more whole grains and lower fat milk in lunches improved the most. However, improvements were slight overall.

With 32.6% of elementary school-aged children overweight or obese, schools are a key focus for improving children’s health and influencing healthy eating behaviors. Federal legislation required school districts participating in the National School Lunch Program to adopt and implement a wellness policy by the first day of the 2006-2007 school year. They asked that it include, among other things, goals for nutrition education and nutrition guidelines for what are known as “competitive” foods and beverages (food items sold in vending machines, bake sales, served at class parties and so on). These policies have generally been developed by districts but it was unclear as to the extent the policies had changed the school environment.

“Competitive foods and school meals are two separate parts of the school food environment, but there is likely a connection, where some students are consuming competitive foods at lunchtime instead of purchasing a school meal, which would be healthier. Competitive foods are a problem because they are generally unhealthy products – sodas or other sugary beverages, and junk foods such as chips and candy. Because there has been very minimal federal regulation thus far on competitive foods and beverages, these items are not subject to nutritional guidelines and are often unhealthy. However, the pending competitive foods regulations – to be issued by the USDA later this year – are likely to promote significant improvements in the nutritional quality of competitive foods and beverages in schools,” says Dr. Lindsey Turner, study co-author.

To learn more about changes in the school food environment, researchers looked at nationally representative, cross-sectional survey data gathered by Bridging the Gap during the 2006-2007 (the first year after the wellness policy mandate took place) and 2009-2010 school years from a total of 1,830 unique schools. Sixteen topics were assessed on the surveys, and topics fell into three categories: competitive foods, school lunches and other food environments. Each school’s score could range between 0 and 100, with higher scores indicating a healthier school environment. About twice as many public schools were surveyed than private schools.

Several practices changed significantly in both study periods. In public schools, more whole grains were served (15.3% to 22.6%), more low fat milk was offered (21.5% to 35.2%), and there was an increase in school gardens and farm-to-school programs from 15.8% to 33.1%. But the rate of having a food and nutrition practitioner on staff decreased from 34.7% to 21.9%. In private schools, there were large increases for low fat milk (18.4% to 32.2%), school gardens and farm-to-school programs (8.7% to 25.4%) and nutrition education (59% to 68.7%). And not offering lunches from commercial sources increased from 52.2% to 64.4%.

In the second study period, there were also some drastic differences between public and private schools. For example, compared to private schools, public schools were more likely to serve fresh fruit (66.1% vs. 48.8%), to have fundraising restrictions (41.6% vs. 27.4%), and to have a food and nutrition practitioner on staff (21.9% vs. 7.2%).

“Across the nation, school districts are experiencing budget shortfalls and many have made staffing cuts, so it is likely that budgetary considerations are associated with reduced prevalence of food and nutrition practitioners in schools and school districts. Our preliminary analyses suggest that having these professionals on staff is associated with healthier lunch offerings, so keeping these professionals involved in schools is an essential consideration as staffing decisions are made,” says Turner.

In general, scores were higher among public schools versus private schools. Additionally, scores were higher in the West South Central U.S. and the Pacific U.S. versus extremely low scores in East North Central U.S. Scores for suburban schools and rural schools were lower than scores from urban schools.

“We, and other researchers, are finding that there is an association between school district policies on competitive foods, and the school food environment. Most public school districts have developed wellness policies, as required by the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004, but few private schools are subject to the wellness policy mandate, and this may be one reason why the school food environment differs in private schools,” says Turner.

Though progress was made, the average score in public schools during 2006-2007 was 50.1, increasing to 53.5 by 2009-2010 – and the reality is that this is a small improvement (the average score in private schools during the same period was 37.2, increasing to 42.4). In the 2009-2010 school year, fewer than one in four schools regularly offered whole grains at lunch. Just one third only offered lower-fat lunch milks. So where do we go from here?

“We are on the right track. As of the start of the 2012-13 school year, substantial changes were made to the USDA meals programs, requiring that school meals include more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and limiting fat and sodium. It will be important to evaluate how these changes affect schoolchildren’s dietary intake. In addition, further changes are needed to address the competitive foods and beverages in schools, and with the forthcoming regulations, there is much potential for those policies to promote meaningful change. It is important for multiple stakeholders, such as parents, teachers, researchers, and policymakers, to stay informed and involved, and to strive to provide kids with a healthy school food environment during the extended school day – that is, not only during school hours, but also before and after school,” adds Turner.