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Still a Long Way to Go



Nearly half of elementary students could buy unhealthy snacks in vending machines, a la carte cafeteria lines and school stores during the 2009-10 school year, according to a study published on Monday in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.
Produced by our friends at Bridging the Gap, the study finds that foods and beverages sold outside of school meals are often unhealthy and include snacks such as cookies, candy and baked goods. The problem is more striking in the South, where 60 percent of public elementary school students could purchase sugary snacks.

The study is evidence that while huge strides have been made when it comes to school food over the past several months — most notably the new school meal nutrition guidelines announced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on Jan. 25 — obstacles remain for those working toward eliminating unhealthy food on campuses.

“I think we had hoped that there had been some changes over time, given increasing attention to this issue,” lead author Lindsey Turner tells The Inside Track

But as Turner points out, things might be shifting. Now that the USDA has finalized the rules on school meals, the agency is expected to turn its attention toward providing nutrition principles for the other foods and beverages sold in schools, commonly referred to as “competitive foods.”

Right now, competitive foods are largely exempt from federal regulation. Schools can’t sell soda, gum and some candy in cafeterias during lunch, but can sell these products elsewhere on campus — even during lunch. And many items high in fat, sugar or sodium are not subject to any national standards. It creates a system that allows students to still buy junk food for lunch, even if the meals schools are serving are healthy.

The USDA is expected to address the issue by unveiling proposed national standards for competitive food sometime this spring, giving advocates hope all school food will soon improve for the better.

“Momentum is a great word,” Turner says. “I think there is a lot of recognition about the importance of this for children’s health, and I think that interest will hopefully make it easier for these changes to be implemented.” 

Turner’s study shows such guidelines are surely needed.

Titled “Student Access to Competitive Foods in Elementary Schools: Trends over Time and Regional Differences” the study found that half of elementary schoolers could buy unhealthy competitive foods in the 2009-10 school year — the same percentage that could in the 2006-07 school year.

Students at lower-income elementary schools had less access to healthy snacks than their peers in higher-income schools, and elementary schools in the South (where obesity is the most prevalent) offered students more access to competitive foods.

Turner and her colleagues backed nutritional guidelines put forth by the Institute of Medicine, which recommends offering only fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products as competitive foods in schools. 

Coming off the USDA school meal announcement, there’s hope in the advocacy community that strong nutritional guidelines will be approved for competitive foods. “There’s a huge window of opportunity here,” Turner says.