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Helping California’s Kids Make Healthier Choices


While parents might be watching their children’s diets closely at home, there is little control a parent can exert over their child’s choices at school. The sale of food and beverages in schools outside of meal programs has been the target of much scrutiny over the past decade.

Soda, candy, chips and other high-calorie, low-nutrient foods are called “competitive foods” because they are available alongside and compete with school meal programs. Competitive food and beverages (C&FB) have been shown by researchers to contribute to unhealthy student diets and increased weight gain in some, but not all, prior studies.

In 2001 and 2003, California enacted comprehensive C&FB policies that required significant changes to public school food environments, although standards continued to vary by school level. In July 2004, California Senate bill 677 prohibited the sale of sugary beverages for students in kindergarten through eighth grades. The bill required at least 50 percent fruit juice with no added sweeteners, eliminated added sweeteners from water and sports drinks, and limited fat content in milk to 2 percent.

Senate bill 12 set statewide nutrition and portion size standards for C&FBs for students in kindergarten through eighth grade in July 2007. State nutrition rules limit the percentage of total calories from fat to 35 percent, calories from saturated fat to 10 percent and sugar content in snacks to 35 percent or less by weight.

What kind of effect does that legislation have on students’ health? Researchers set out to answer that question, and their findings were published this month in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

“Childhood obesity remains a major public health problem in California and the nation, but policies similar to the California laws which seek to improve nutrition in schools, appear to be a key part of the solution,” said lead author Emma Sanchez-Vaznaugh.

Before the C&FB policies took effect, the prevalence of overweight and obesity among 5th grade students was increasing over time—even at schools in relatively more socially and economically advantaged neighborhoods. 

After the policies went into effect changes to the pattern can be seen. From 2005 to 2010, rates of overweight and obesity were no longer increasing among students at schools in more disadvantaged neighborhoods and actually declined among students at schools in more advantaged neighborhoods.

The researchers were pleasantly surprised to find that body weight trends improved for all students regardless of the socioeconomic levels of their school neighborhoods. But the improvement was smaller among students who were also more likely to experience disadvantaged conditions outside of school.

“Our study suggests that these state-level school policies had positive impacts on students’ health in California, but that not all students benefitted equally,” explained Sanchez-Vaznaugh. Students at schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods appear to have experienced smaller improvements than their peers in more affluent school neighborhoods.”

The researchers caution that they cannot rule out the possibility that other factors may have contributed to the improvements as well, however, the study’s results do suggest that policies that regulate unhealthy food and sugary beverages in schools may play an important role in promoting children’s health.

Sanchez-Vaznaugh emphasized that there’s much more research yet to be done. “Only a few studies have looked at the impact of these types of school policies on children’s body weight, and even fewer have looked at the combined effects of school policies and neighborhood conditions where children live and attend school,” she said. “We know little about the ways in which both schools and neighborhood environments work together to influence children’s health.”

To read the full study, please click here.

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