Think Your Kids Kicked the Soda Habit? Better Check School's Cafeteria, Survey Says
Although high-calorie beverages are not allowed to be served with school meals per the USDA's National School Lunch Program guidelines, these drinks are still available in a majority of U.S. elementary schools, according to a recent report in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.
The report details the results of a national survey designed to examine the availability of high calorie and sugar-sweetened beverages for sale in elementary schools through "competitive" venues including vending machines, school stores and snack bars/à la carte during lunchtime. The survey also looked at the different types of milk available in school cafeterias including low fat, whole and flavored.
"The U.S. Department of Agriculture National School Lunch Program has a broad reach, serving meals to more than 31 million students in 2008," the authors write. However, competitive food and beverages are not subject to the same dietary guidelines as school meals.
Sugar-sweetened beverages, such as soda, sports drinks and fruit-flavored beverages, are associated with obesity and other negative health consequences. The rate of obesity among children ages 6 to 11 has more than quadrupled from 4 percent in the late 1970s to nearly 20 percent in 2007-2008.
Access to competitive beverages in public elementary schools increased from 49 percent in the 2006-2007 school year to 61.3 percent in 2008-2009, according to the survey. And, as a result of this increased availability, the percentage of students with access to higher-calorie beverages also increased.
"Access to competitive items was associated with consumption of unhealthy foods and beverages and increased caloric intake," write the authors, who advise "because children spend many hours in school, changes are needed to make the school environment healthier by limiting the availability of high calorie beverages."
While student access to competitive products is virtually exempt from federal regulation, the authors note that the Institute of Medicine recommends competitive beverages in elementary schools be limited to water, 100 percent juice and nonfat or 1 percent flavored or unflavored milk.
Although 16.1 percent of students had access to only beverages recommended by the Institute of Medicine guidelines in the 2008-2009 school year, 44.7 percent of students were able to purchase beverages not allowed by these guidelines. Percentages in private elementary schools followed a similar pattern as those found in public schools, with increases in access to beverages highest in á la carte sales, according to the report.
The current survey provides the most up-to-date information on the availability of beverages in a nationally representative sample of elementary schools in the United States, according to the report.
"Our results show some encouraging changes in the availability of healthy beverages in schools, but there are many more opportunities for change," the authors conclude. "Much work remains to be done to reduce the availability of unhealthy beverages in elementary schools in the United States, and we encourage policy makers, school officials and parents to work together to address this important issue."
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