High-Calorie Beverages Widely Available in American Elementary Schools

This study investigates the availability of various beverages in American elementary schools based on a three-year survey. In public elementary schools, various beverages are sold through vending machines and at stores during school lunch breaks and at fundraisers. The study concludes that several high-calorie beverages and those that are not allowed by national health guidelines were still widely available at most schools. On the other hand, access to beverages such as water, non-fat milk and 100 percent juice, which are allowed by the Institute of Medicine guidelines, also increased in most schools.

Obesity among kids aged 6 to 11 years rose from 4 percent in 1970 to 20 percent in 2008 because of unhealthy eating habits and lack of physical activities. Regulations have been put in place for the provision of healthy food in schools. However, most lunch programs continue to provide high fat milk and sweetened beverages through vending machines. The Alliance for a Healthier Generation reached an agreement in May 2006, with several major beverage companies and the American Beverage Association to “limit portion sizes and energy content of all beverages offered to students during the regular and extended school day.” This study examines the availability of both allowed and restricted drinks at several public schools.

* Questionnaires were sent to public and private elementary schools for three years. These were to be completed by the food-service personnel. For each of the three years, 578, 748 and 641 public schools and 259, 336 and 297 private schools esponded to the questionnaires.
* The schools were asked which beverages were sold through the vending machines, stores and lunch programs. Their portion sizes and frequency of sale were also assessed.
* The ages, weights and races of students were documented. Their eligibility for free/reduced-priced food was also recorded.
* The urban-rural nature of the location of each school in the U.S. was noted.

* Most public school students had access to higher-fat milk (2 percent or whole milk) during lunch in the first two years of the study (77.9 and 79.7 percent, respectively). The percentage went down to 68.3 percent in the final year of the study.
* Access to vending machines for public school students remained constant while access to stores, snack bars and à la carte lines were found to increase significantly.
* Together with increase in food accessibility, accessibility of high-fat milk and other beverages increased. Students buying sugar-sweetened drinks also increased in number. A similar trend toward increased accessibility of beverages was seen in private schools.
* Public schools in the Northeast and Southern U.S. had higher availability of beverages than those in the Midwest and West. Schools in the South also seemed to provide more unhealthy options.

Shortcomings / Next steps
The conclusions of this study are completely based on reported data. Reports often try to show the schools in a better light, making it possible that the situation is worse than what the numbers suggest. There may be other sources of food (parties etc.) commonly available in schools that are not considered.

The number of students with access to beverages allowed by health regulations increased, though not significantly. The availability of unhealthy beverages also increased. The accessibility of high-sugar and high-fat drinks remained higher than ideal in both, public and private schools. Areas in the Southern U.S. had a higher problem of obesity, and correspondingly had a higher availability of unhealthy food in schools. The authors of this study recommend addition of healthy options and removal of unhealthy ones from school menus. This study concludes that in spite of dietary guidelines and national health regulations, high calorie and unhealthy beverages were still being served in most schools.

For More Information:
Wide Availability of High-Calorie Beverages in US Elementary Schools
Publication Journal: Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, November 2010
By Lindsey Turner, PhD; Frank J. Chaloupka, PhD; University of Illinois, Chicago

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