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Nutrition is the key

July 8, 2008 -- The July issue of Pediatrics included the article "School Food Environments and Policies in US Public Schools" by authors Daniel M. Finkelstein, Elaine L. Hill, and Robert C. Whitaker. The article concludes that as children move to higher grade levels, their school food environments become less healthy. The research, based on the USDA School Nutrition Dietary Assessment III (SNDA III) study, found a majority of US secondary schools sell items a la carte in the cafeteria and through vending machines, and these two sources often contain low-nutrient, energy-dense foods and beverages. The researchers based their conclusion on a tally of the number of vending machines installed at 395 schools spread across 129 school districts in 38 states, as well as on a nutritional analysis of the kinds of foods stocked in the machines or offered up a la carte in school cafeterias and snack bars.

According to the study, in 2005, vending machines were found in 17% of elementary schools, 82% of middle schools and 97% of high schools - a la carte items were sold in 71%, 92% and 93% of schools, respectively.  Elementary schools were found to have significantly healthier food environments and policies than secondary schools.  Researchers found less than 20% of schools with vending and a la carte offerings free of low-nutrient energy-dense foods. 
It is important to note the report does not fully reflect all of the changes made as a result of schools implementing local school wellness policies.  In 2006, following the collection of this data, schools were required to develop and implement a wellness policy which addressed nutrition, nutrition education and physical activity.  Significant changes have occurred following the implementation of these wellness policies.
Today, school nutrition programs are offering more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains and more low-fat dairy than ever before, and less high fat foods. According to the SNA From Cupcakes to Carrots study, published in September 2007, 96% of schools included a la carte foods and 92% included vending in their wellness policy standards.   Over 75% of schools report successfully implementing or are in the process of implementation of wellness standards for both vending and a la carte offerings.
2007 School Nutrition Operations Report and the 2007 SNA School Trends Report surveyed school nutrition directors to explore changes and track changes occurring in school districts across the country. The reports found 81.3% of districts are increasing the availability of healthier beverages in vending machines, 73.6% are reducing/limiting trans fat content, 68.8% are increasing the availability of fresh fruits/vegetables on a la carte lines and/or vending machines and 68.3% are limiting the hours of operation/availability of vending machines.  73.1% of school districts are limiting the fat content of a la carte and/or vending items up from 38.4% in 2004. 

The SNA reports also found notable changes in the beverages available to students through vending machines. Water, now the top-ranked beverage in vending machines, is cited by 96.8% of school nutrition directors surveyed, and shows a consistent increase from 2004, when it was cited by 88.1%. Other beverages that are becoming increasingly more prevalent are 50% to 100% juice, iced tea, and reduced-fat/skim milk. In contrast, the availability of fruit drinks (less than 50% juice) and whole milk continue to decline, with whole milk dropping to 10% from a high of 27.4% in 2004.

The 2006 School Health Policies and Programs Study (SHPPS) findings were also consistent with trends seen in the 2007 School Nutrition Operations Report and the 2007 SNA School Trends Report.  SHPPS reported increases in low fat a la carte foods such as vegetables, salads, and low fat yogurt and an increase in healthy preparation practices like the use of low fat dairy, reducing sodium in recipes and steaming instead of frying. 

School nutrition programs will continue to make impressive strides to offer students balanced nutritious meals as well as healthy a la carte and vending options. SNA remains committed to ensuring healthy foods and beverages are available in schools and supports the adoption of national uniform school food and beverage standards.

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