New Evidence Shows That School Food Policy Matters When It Comes to Kids’ Health

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By Ioulia Fenton

Childhood obesity has reached epidemic proportions in the United States. According to the 2011 F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens Americas’ Future report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Trust for America’s Health, nearly one-third of all American kids ages 10 to 17 are either obese or overweight. This puts them at risk of more than 20 major diseases, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Typical competitive foods available in schools include highly processed snacks and drinks (Photo Credit: Health.com)

One proposed way of dealing with this phenomenon is through state and national level legislation to regulate the type of foods available at schools. This is done in two ways. The first is to set nutritional standards for school meals provided free of charge or at reduced prices by the government. The other is to also set standards for and limit the availability of competitive foods—foods sold outside of federal meal programs, such as snacks and soft drinks.

In theory, the food environment children experience impacts their food choices and health outcomes—if mainly healthy and nutritious foods are available, kids will eat mainly healthy and nutritious foods. However, schools cannot control what snacks students bring from home or what food they eat in the evenings or during vacations. It is not clear whether restricting the availability of competitive foods in schools would lead to better health.

Fortunately, moving from theory to evidence, researchers have begun to evaluate the effects of governments’ school food policies. A recent study, published in the journal Pediatrics in August 2012, for example, suggests that laws governing the availability and type of competitive foods found in schools have had a positive impact on kids’ health outcomes.

Using available legal databases, the study’s researchers—a team from the University of Illinois and the National Cancer Institute—categorized U.S. states as having strong, weak, or no competitive food laws in 2003. This was based on the strength of the laws and their comprehensiveness. To track changes over time, states’ competitive food laws were also rated for 2006. The researchers then used longitudinal data of weight and height measurements—combined into a compound measure known as the Body Mass Index (BMI)—of more than 6,300 children in fifth and eighth grades. Children’s BMI data was included for 40 states for the years of 2004 and 2007.

The study found students who were consistently exposed to strong state competitive food laws gained, on average, less BMI points than those from states with weak or no such laws. In addition, they found that where the laws were weak, children’s long-term BMI gain was the same as for kids in states with no competitive food laws at all. The authors concluded that “laws that regulate competitive food nutrition content may reduce adolescent BMI change if they are comprehensive, contain strong language, and are enacted across grade levels.”

It is noteworthy that, between 2004 and 2007, the average BMI scores increased in all three groups of states (with strong, weak, or no laws). Therefore, strong competitive food laws may have helped only to mitigate the observed rise in children’s BMI. In addition, causality is hard to establish in studies like this one. It is not clear if the laws themselves were the cause of reduced BMI gain or if other factors were involved. States with strong commitment to competitive food laws, for example, are possibly more likely to have committed to a number of other initiatives within and outside schools. These include stricter standards for federally provided school meals; state participation in the national farm-to-school movement—programs that connect schools to local farms with the purpose of serving healthy, organic meals in cafeterias; sales taxes on soft drinks; and mandatory labeling of nutritional information on menus and menu boards in restaurants (see the F as in Fat report for details). These could have worked together with the food competitiveness laws to reduce BMI gain of the kids in the study and further research is needed to isolate policy effects.

Nevertheless, the research certainly provides food for thought. If more corroborating evidence keeps surfacing, it will make it easier for national and local level leaders to justify legal changes that aim to ensure a fit and healthy future generation.

Do you know of any other studies that show the relationship between school food policy and children’s health? Please share in the comments below.

Ioulia Fenton is a Food and Agriculture Research Intern at Nourishing the Planet.

Check out other initiatives around the United States and other countries that are making school food healthier: Helping Poor Children Avoid Poor Diets, 15 Innovations Making School Lunches Healthier and More Sustainable, Five School Programs Feeding America’s Children, Back to School and Back to Good Food, and Innovation of the Week: School food gardens support food security and education in the Cape Flats.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE.

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