Nearly half of elementary school children can buy junk food at school, a trend that contributes to the childhood obesity epidemic and underscores the need for federal regulation of school snacks, according to a study published Monday in a pediatric journal.
The study, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, comes as federal regulators are crafting a proposal that would set new nutrition standards for foods and beverages sold in vending machines, snack bars and elsewhere in schools.
The proposal will not cover foods that are part of the federally subsidized school meal program. That program was revamped recently by the Obama administration and requires participating school cafeterias to start serving twice as many fruits and vegetables, more whole grains and less sodium and fat when the next school year begins.
Consumer advocates are hoping for an equally dramatic change in so-called “competitive foods” that are sold outside the school meal program. They say these foods, including potato chips and cookies, are widely available but barely regulated in schools.
Federal law bans only a small subset of competitive foods, such as sodas and certain types of candy, from being sold in cafeterias during mealtime. But those products are available to kids in other venues at school, even during lunch, according to the study, which was published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. Such foods also include sandwiches, pizza and other a la carte items that are not federally reimbursed.
“Really, it’s a very weak regulation at this point,” said Lindsey Turner, lead author of the study and a health psychologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “We’re at a time of transition and opportunity for these competitive foods.”
The study, based on mail-back surveys from about 3,900 public and private elementary schools nationwide, found that about half of the students could buy foods in one or more competitive venues during the 2009-10 school year. Access to these foods did not change significantly during the 2006-07 through 2009-10 school years.
The study highlighted “striking” regional differences. About 60 percent of public elementary school kids had access to sugary snacks in the South, where childhood obesity rates are the highest. This compares with 24 percent in the West and 30 percent in the Midwest. But fruits and vegetables also were more available in the South.
The study assessed only access to snacks, not consumption or the link to obesity. It cited a separate 2009 study, however, in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association showing that 29 percent of elementary school students consumed competitive foods, usually unhealthy ones. A separate study strongly linked the availability of unhealthy foods and drinks in competitive venues with greater calorie intake.
In early 2010, the American Beverage Association said that its members had voluntarily reduced the calories in drinks shipped to schools by 88 percent. Its members also stopped offering full-calorie soft drinks in elementary school vending machines.
Jim McCarthy, president of the Snack Food Association, said he had not seen this week’s study. But the group’s members, including Frito-Lay and Kraft, have been voluntarily reducing fats, sodium and sugars in their products for at least six years, he said. Last week, the chairman and highest-ranking Democrat on the House agriculture committee wrote a letter urging Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to make sure that the final proposal is consistent with the standards set for the federally funded school meal program.