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School Snacks Aren’t Making the Grade


The majority of secondary schools still have a long way to go to improve the nutritional quality of the snacks they sell, according to a new study from our friends at the Kids’ Safe & Healthful Foods Project.

Fewer than half of secondary schools in 49 states sold fruits and vegetables in snack venues such as vending machines and student stores in 2010, the study finds. Hundreds also sell less-healthy snack foods or beverages – in 36 states, more than a quarter sold these products in 2010.

Researchers say improving the quality of school snacks is a key part of the overall effort to reduce childhood obesity. Data show that the consumption of 110 to 165 calories above recommended amounts per day may be responsible for the rising rates of childhood obesity.

That caloric difference is about the difference between an apple and a bag of potato chips. “Because many students consume as many as half of their daily calories at school, what children eat during the school day is a critical issue,” Jessica Donze Black, director of the project, said in a statement.

Strong laws that restrict the sale of unhealthy school snacks and drinks could have a big impact on students’ weight, a study published in Pediatrics earlier this year found. That study showed that child and teens who attended schools in states with such policies gained less weight over a three year period than youngsters living in states without policies.

Indeed, the availability of healthy snack foods varies widely from state to state, according to the Kids’ Safe & Healthful Foods report. For example, beverages such as fruit drinks and soda are available in half of schools in most states. In West Virginia, only 3 percent of schools sell them – but more than half do so in Utah.

In Connecticut, only 4 percent of schools sell non-chocolate candy. In Louisiana, 66 percent of schools do.

The differences can be attributed to a patchwork of policies at the state and local levels which govern what food and beverages can be sold as snacks in schools. Most states do have nutritional policies for school snacks, but the quality of those policies varies widely across state lines.

Meanwhile, improvements to the school snack environment appear to have stalled since 2008.  In Oklahoma, for example, between 2002 and 2008 the amount of schools that sold chocolate candy was reduced from 81 percent to 46 percent. But from 2008 to 2010, the number of schools selling candy dropped just 2 percent.

Researchers argue that their findings provide further proof that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) should issue nutritional guidelines for all foods and beverages sold in schools, including those sold in vending machines, school stores or a la carte in the cafeteria.

The USDA, which is currently working to implement nutritional standards for school meals, was expected to release proposed guidelines for school snacks earlier this year. The standards have yet to be unveiled, however.

“Many states have made progress towards making healthier snacks available to students, but more must be done,” Donze Black said. “We urge USDA to adopt strong standards and help to put them into practice. All kids, no matter what school they attend, should have healthy snack choices.”

Click here to read the full study, titled Out of Balance: A Look at Snack Foods in Secondary Schools across the States.

Click here to sign a petition asking the USDA to release nutritional guidelines for school snacks