Early lunch, school income from soft drink contract incentives and parents who bring fast food to the cafeteria for their kids are primary factors working to dilute the effectiveness of high school nutrition programs. So says a new study by Penn State researchers published in the February issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.
A separate article in the same issue by the same research team details survey results from the same sample that shows a divergence of perceptions between foodservice directors and school principals on competitive foods, particularly the extent to which rules governing their sale are enforced and how strictly nutritional standards are adhered to.
"This new information may be useful to school wellness councils as they work toward developing wellness policies as mandated by the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004 as well as structuring school environments to promote more healthful food choices by students," offers study leader Claudia Probart, associate professor of nutritional sciences.
To conduct the study, the researchers sent surveys to school foodservice directors at 271 public high schools in Pennsylvania, receiving an 84 percent participation rate. The schools were representative of the entire population of high schools in Pennsylvania based on region, rate of free and reduced-price lunch participants, enrollment and location (rural, urban, etc.).
Among the findings:
- 25 percent of the directors reported that lunch periods are scheduled before 10:30 a.m. and the researchers found that an early lunch start predicted higher a la carte sales.
- a la carte sales generate almost $700 per day per school among schools surveyed, with $450 of that income coming from a la carte items that meet few federal requirements compared to school meals.
- the existence of soft drink machines owned by soft drink companies correlated with a higher number of vending machines per student; and, when there were more vending machines, there was less participation in the hot lunch program.
- enforcement of policies prohibiting parents or students from bringing fast food into the cafeteria increased participation in the school meal program. However, only about a quarter of the foodservice directors reported having such a policy that was enforced. Another 28 percent reported that they had no such policy.
The study was authored by Probart; Elaine McDonnell, project coordinator; Dr. Terryl Hartman, associate professor of nutritional sciences; J. Elaine Weirich, project coordinator; and Lisa Bailey-Davis, director of operations, Pennsylvania Advocates for Nutrition and Activity, Penn State Harrisburg.