Despite campaigns to reduce overweight and obesity in American schools, the availability of sugar-laden or full fat drinks in US public elementary schools is still far too high, researchers report in the peer reviewed journal Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. The study is called “Wide Availability of High-Calorie Beverages in U.S. Elementary Schools”. It seems that only a tiny proportion of schools are doing anything about limiting drinks sales to only healthy choices, the authors add. The USA has the second highest childhood obesity rates (after Mexico) worldwide and the highest rates of adult obesity/overweight.

Drinks with sugar added were much more common in the South, where it is no coincidence that childhood obesity rates are the highest in the country. The authors report that at least 20% of elementary school pupils in the South could purchase sodas and other sugary beverages in vending machines, school shops and a-la-carte lines. Similar ease of access was detected among 9% of children in Midwest and West schools and 14% of those in the Northeast.

Lindsey Turner, Ph.D. Turner, lead author, said:

Despite nationwide efforts to reduce the amount of sodas, sports drinks, higher-fat milk and other high-calorie drinks sold in schools, the reality is that many students still can purchase them on campus. Elementary school students are still surrounded by a variety of unhealthy beverages while at school.

The authors say their survey is a nationally-representative one of US elementary public schools during three academic years, from 2006 to the end of 2009. They compared the available drinks to guidelines developed by the IOM (Institute of Medicine). The IOM recommends that schools only have available bottled water, 100% juice and milk with no more than 1% fat.

Highlighted below are some of the researchers’ findings:

  • By the end of 2009 the most commonly available drinks were bottled water and low-fat milk. However, unhealthy drinks became more readily available in school stores and a-la-carte lines, compared to 2006-7.
  • 16% of pupils could only buy healthy drinks outside of school meals, compared to 10% before. However, the authors say the proportion is still extremely low.
  • High-fat milk was taken out of the lunch program of many schools, but added to competitive venues. In 2008-09 over 68% of children could purchase 2% or full-fat milk with their school lunch, and over 35% could buy it from a competitive venue, compared to 77% and 29% respectively two years previously.

Turner said:

It’s a good first step for schools to give students healthy choices. But what would really make a difference is removing the unhealthy beverages entirely.

Unfortunately, too many schools are just adding healthier choices, but not removing the fattening and unhealthy ones.

The researchers believe local and state authorities can set policies so that schools comply by improving access to healthy drinks and getting rid of unhealthy ones. They added that they agreed with the IOM guidelines.

C. Tracy Orleans, Ph.D., a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation senior scientist, said:

It’s encouraging to see that more schools are offering healthy beverages, but we must continue to push for changes to make schools even healthier. Other research has shown us that when schools replace unhealthy foods and beverages with healthy ones, they don’t lose money and they can help kids reduce their intake of extra calories.

In a communiqué, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, who funded this study, wrote:

The Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill currently before Congress would require updated school meal nutrition standards for the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs. It also would require that only nonfat and low-fat milk be part of these programs. A critical issue in the debate is whether to grant the U.S. Department of Agriculture the authority to apply school nutrition standards to all foods and beverages served or sold anywhere on campus for the full school day. The Senate has already passed its version of the reauthorization bill, and the House of Representatives may consider it after the 2010 mid-term elections.

“Wide Availability of High-Calorie Beverages in US Elementary Schools”
Lindsey Turner, PhD; Frank J. Chaloupka, PhD
Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. Published online November 1, 2010. doi:10.1001/archpediatrics.2010.215

Written by Christian Nordqvist