SAN DIEGO—More schools may soon offer and advertise healthier food options following new research that shows kids who participate in nutrition programs through school eat more fruits and vegetables while maintaining lower body mass indexes (BMIs), according to a study presented during the Experimental Biology 2014 meeting. In addition, new standards proposed by Voices for Healthy Kids could affect the foods sold and advertised through vending machines, snack bars and in cafeterias.
Recent estimates indicate rates of childhood obesity tripled in the last 25 years, raising kids’ risk of obesity in adulthood and a host of associated health problems. On the other hand, the nation’s youth adopted healthier behaviors between 2001 and 2009, such as increased physical activity, less TV viewing and more fruit and vegetable consumption. Amid these positive changes, schools have started to take action as well.
Rachel Scherr, Ph.D., assistant project scientist at the University of California at Davis, led a team of researchers who studied fourth-graders participating in the school nutrition program. These students ate substantially more fruits and vegetables and lowered their body mass indexes (BMIs) during the school year that the program was implemented. Also, the percentage of fourth-graders who were overweight or obese dropped from 56%to 38% over the course of the year.
The “Shaping Healthy Choices Program" takes a holistic approach to engage students, schools, parents and community partners in building healthful habits. At its core is a curriculum that integrates classroom nutrition activities with physical activity and gardening.
Four elementary schools in two California school districts participated in the study. In each district, one school received the Shaping Healthy Choices Program over the course of the 2012-2013 school year, while the other school did not. The researchers assessed several outcomes, including students’ BMIs, reported dietary intake and knowledge about nutrition at the start and end of the school year.
Although the analyses are still underway, preliminary results from one district show participating children dropped their BMI percentile by nearly nine points from an average of the 77th percentile to an average of the 68th percentile. Participating fourth-grade children who reported eating one or fewer servings of vegetables per day at the start of the study increased their vegetable intake by 40%. Students at the school that did not receive the Shaping Healthy Choices Program showed no change in BMI, vegetable intake or nutrition knowledge.
The program was designed to be easily integrated into the Common Core standards now being rolled out in 44 U.S. states. Multiple components of the program can be adopted separately or together, though the study only evaluated the effectiveness of the full program.
Another step toward healthier schools includes the promotion of fruits and vegetables and decreased advertising for unhealthy foods. New United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) proposals may allow only ads and marketing for food that meet the new nutrition guidelines. USDA also began revamping nutrition standards for school meals with the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, which was the first national update in 15 years. Schools are now required to come up with wellness plans and provide meals with more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, while limiting the amount of sodium, fat and calories. The USDA says 86% of schools are complying.
The new standards, which could be in place in the 2014-15 school year, also affect the foods sold through vending machines, snack bars and a la carte in cafeterias. Previous research shows most public elementary, middle and high school students are exposed to some kind of commercial marketing efforts at their schools, which are designed to increase sales of food and beverages or develop brand recognition and loyalty. However, the new standards would prohibit branded images for sugary sodas on vending machines, posters and cups.
Some areas have already taken action. Several school districts, including Seattle and San Francisco, have adopted broad commercial-free policies that address marketing across the board, not just of food and beverages.
“This is going to raise the bar for all schools," said Jessica Donze Black, director of the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project. “And it’s a little bit of a culture shift in how people think (about food in schools)."
According to the Federal Trade Commission, food and beverage companies spent $149 million to market their products in schools in 2009. Advertising for sodas and other sugary drinks made up more than 90% of that spending, followed by fast food. However, FTC also revealed that food and beverages companies began to market more products lower in calories, sodium, sugar and saturated fat in 2009 compared to 2006.