Although more elementary schools in the United States are replacing sugary drinks with healthier options, such as water, unhealthy beverages remain available to one-third of public elementary school students, according to a new report.

The study, published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, examined the availability of competitive beverages – those sold by schools outside of meal programs through vending machines, a la carte lines in the cafeteria, school stores and snack bars – in public elementary schools in the U.S.

The team discovered that more schools are removing unhealthy options, such as sports drinks, soda, and high-fat milk and replacing them with healthier choices, such as bottled water, 100% juice or low-fat milk.

Lindsey Turner, Ph.D.,a co-investigator with Bridging the Gap, a research program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), which supported the study, explained:

“Elementary schools across the country are improving the beverage landscape, showing that change is possible and it’s already happening. While the progress is encouraging, too many of our nation’s youngest students can still buy unhealthy drinks at school.”

Nutrition guidelines developed by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommend that only water, 100% juice and nonfat or 1% milk should be offered in elementary schools. Unhealthy, unapproved beverages include soda, sports drinks, diet sodas, low calorie juices, and high-fat milk.

Between 2006 and 2011, the team found the following trends:

  • 47% of students had access to unhealthy beverages in 2007-2008, this figure decreased in 2010-2011 to 33%.
  • In 2006-2007, 10% of students could buy only healthy beverages outside of school meals, this figure increased to 11% in 2010-2011.
  • 17% of students could buy unhealthy drinks in 2006-2007 vs. 12% in 2010-2011.
  • In 2008-2009, 61% of students could buy beverages in any competitive venue, this figure decreased to 55% in 2010-2011.

According to Turner, these trends may be partially due to improvements in school district polices.

She continued: “Other recent findings show that some school districts have set policies for competitive foods and beverages that exceed the current weak federal standards, but many districts, unfortunately, have not made such improvements”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is currently in the process of updating nutrition standards for competitive food and beverages in schools, which have not been revised in over three decades.

C. Tracy Orleans, Ph.D., senior scientist at RWJF, explained:

“It is encouraging that elementary schools are leading the way to remove unhealthy drinks and offer students healthy options. Now more than ever, it’s critically important for the USDA to set strong standards for competitive foods and beverages to help ensure that all students across all grades have healthy choices at school.”

Written by Grace Rattue