Elementary schools are less likely to sell unhealthy snack foods and drinks if school districts or states have rules that limit the sale of such products, a new study finds.
However, more than three-quarters of public elementary schools in the United States are located in a state or school district that does not limit the sale of items such as sugary drinks, salty snacks, candy or high-fat milk, according to the research.
For the study, researchers examined the types of foods and drinks offered by schools nationwide between 2008-2009 and 2010-2011. Candy, ice cream, cookies and other sweets were sold by about 32% of schools in areas where both school district or state policies limited the sugar content of snack foods, compared with 43% of schools where there were no such policies.
Ice cream was sold by just over 10% of schools in areas where the state and school district limited the fat content of snack foods, compared with about 21% of schools where there was no such policy. Cookies, cakes and other high-fat baked goods were sold by nearly 12% of schools in areas with such a policy and by about 25% of schools in areas with no such policy, the investigators found.
In the case of sugary drinks, school district policies had more impact than state laws: Sugar-sweetened beverages were sold by close to 4% of schools when school districts banned them, compared with 13% of schools when there was no school district ban.
However, the sale of sugary beverages by schools was not affected by state bans - especially in the South - where sugary drinks were sold by one-quarter of schools in states that banned the sale of the drinks in schools.
The study was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation through its national research program, Bridging the Gap.
"We found that states and districts can influence the types of snacks and drinks sold at school," study lead author Jamie Chriqui, an investigator at Bridging the Gap, said in a foundation news release. "These policies can go a long way in helping kids have healthy choices during the school day, but more states and districts need to get strong policies on the books to have a meaningful impact nationally."
However, Chriqui and colleagues found that many states and school districts do not have specific nutritional rules for school snacks and drinks. Among US elementary schools:
- 78% were in a district and state that did not limit the sodium (salt) content of snacks or ban high-fat milk.
- 77% were in a district and state that allowed the sale of candy.
- 75% were in a district and state that did not prohibit the sale of sports drinks, sodas and sugar-sweetened fruit drinks.
- 58% were in a district and state that did not limit the sugar content of snacks.
"Too many of our nation's schools are still selling junk foods and sugary drinks to young children," Chriqui said.
"But the good news is that this is the first generation of children to be enrolled in school at a time when educators and policymakers are focused on preventing childhood obesity - that's why it's so critical to enact or change policies that make schools healthier places for students," she added in the news release.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has more about childhood