Healthy Snack Food Options Largely Absent From U.S. High Schools

Hungry at school? Better be happy with soda and cookies.

New federal standards may soon force high schools to offer healthier snack foods on campus. (Photo: Sean Locke/Getty Images)

Shari Roan is an award-winning health writer based in Southern California.

A lot of attention has been paid to meal and snack-food options in U.S. public elementary schools. But the effort clearly hasn't reached high schools, according to data released today by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The majority of secondary schools do not sell fruits or vegetables in school stores, snack bars, or vending machines, even though research shows that a daily practice of swapping a cup of low-fat yogurt for a chocolate fudge brownie could eventually be the difference between a kid who is normal weight or overweight.

Kids consume up to half of their daily calories at school, making the issue of nutrition on school groups of keen importance to public health experts.

"Students spend more time in school than any other place other than their home. So we really need to pay attention to what is happening in the high school environment," Jessica Donze Black, director of the Kid's Safe and Healthful Foods Project, told Take Part. The project is a joint initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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Significantly more effort has been placed on improving foods in elementary schools, she says.

"The high school may be the last frontier in terms of addressing that," Black says. "These are kids who are at the point where they are making their own choices. We want all of those choices to be healthy choices. We can expose them to things they might not otherwise choose...A lot of schools that offer healthy foods in schools say kids will eat them. "

The report, released today in Washington, D.C., was based on data collected from a biennial survey of principals and health education teachers in secondary schools conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The study looked only at foods and beverages sold as snacks—not food sold in cafeteria-style lines.

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Surveys from 2002 to 2008 showed high school officials were making progress in easing high-calorie, low-nutrient snacks from their campuses. But little progress has been made since then, and some schools have actually increased the availability of less-healthy snacks.

"There has been some backsliding," Black says. "There had been a lot of progress in the early part of the 2000s, and that progress stalled. We're not where we need to be yet."

The new findings, from 2010, showed great variability between states. Only four percent of schools in Connecticut sold non-chocolate candy compared to 66 percent of schools in Louisiana. Only two percent of schools in West Virginia sold chocolate candy compared to 46 percent in Idaho.

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Fewer than half of all schools still sell high-calorie sodas and fruit drinks, however. But, in 49 states, fewer than half of high schools sold fruits and vegetables in snack venues. Two states that shine: Half of all New Hampshire schools offer fruit in snack venues, and more than one-third of Michigan high schools sell vegetables.

A lot of progress has been made by vending companies to adapt machines for stocking healthier fare, Black notes. Some school officials have expressed concern that swapping out popular soda vending machines for ones with water or milk might result in a painful loss of revenue. But a study published in June by Pew and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation showed that schools may lose money when students choose unhealthy vending foods over healthier fare. Schools that prohibited unhealthy vending-machine foods saw an increase in revenue as students' options narrowed.

"Schools break even or make money," Black says. "It's a potential win-win for school districts and students."

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High schools may be forced to address nutrition in its snack venues. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is preparing to issue policies requiring that foods and beverages sold as part of the federal school meals program meet minimum nutrition standards. These snack food items are sometimes referred to as "competitive foods" because they compete with school cafeteria meals for student's dollars.

USDA has already implemented guidelines to improve the nutritional content of school cafeteria meals. But those regulations did not include snack foods.

"The new standards will raise the floor," she says. The proposed policy will be open for public comment for 90 days. "We encourage people to come to our website and be part of that process," Black says.

Question: Should high schools forbid the sale of unhealthy snack foods? Tell us what you think in the comments.

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