Originally published on Savvy Auntie.
According to a recent HealthDay report, states with the toughest regulations and strictest food laws in schools have students who maintain healthier weights. The “competitive food laws” regulate “competitive foods” that are sold at schools outside of meal programs. These foods are sold to students separately from the School Breakfast Program/National School Lunch Program– they “compete” with the standard school meals.
Part of an attempt to curb childhood obesity, the laws cover vending machine snacks, food sold a la carte in school cafeterias, and food items used in fundraisers for school sports or clubs. Some students may even choose to make a meal out of the competitive foods instead of consuming the more nutritious SBP/NSLP meals that are always governed by nutrition standards.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that childhood obesity has tripled over the past three decades – approximately 17% (12.5 million) of children and adolescents aged 2-19 are obese.
Dr. Daniel Taber, a postdoctorial research associate from the University at Chicago, stated, “Competitive food laws in schools reduce weight gain if they are strong and consistent.” In his attempt to study and gage the success of food laws, Taber collected data from 40 states; 11 had competitive food laws that were consistently strong or became stronger in the years 2003-2006. The laws were classified as strong laws if they included the requirement that schools sell only foods meeting specific nutrition standards; the laws were otherwise considered weak if they offered recommendations but did not require the sale of healthy food or if the laws lacked specificity and guidelines for what foods qualified as being healthy.
After evaluating the effects of school food laws, Taber found that students who were exposed to strong laws gained less weight and were less likely to be overweight or obese over extended periods of time compared to other students in states that had no such food regulations. On average, fifth grade students who attended schools with particularly strong and consistent laws gained 0.25 fewer BMI units over the three years of the study than students from schools without strong and consistent food laws – Taber estimated the findings to be roughly 1.25 fewer pounds for a 5’ child with a starting weight of 100 lbs. in 2003 compared to a similar student from a school without food regulations.
Given the results of the study, Dr. Marlene Schwartz, deputy director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, has been quoted saying, “We have found that kids eat less junk food when there is less junk food in schools […] this is the first big national study that looked at the laws.”
Taber suggests talking to school administrators about health concerns and asking to join committees on school wellness policy. Savvy Aunties might consider being more involved in school fundraisers or other projects and provide healthy snacks and better, more nutritious alternatives for cookies and candy.
In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of state laws that regulate the food sold in schools. In 1979, a federal standard was passed to prevent schools from selling items, such as candy and gum in the cafeteria during the lunch break. At present, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is updating the standard to coincide with 2010 Dietary Guidelines.