Student Access to Competitive Foods in Elementary Schools

Trends Over Time and Regional Differences

This Bridging the Gap study presents the most up-to-date information on the issue, and urges the Department of Agriculture to set strong, consistent nutrition standards for these snacks.

In the 2009-2010 school year, there were marked regional disparities in access to both healthy and harmful foods and beverages. Competitive foods are those sold in vending machines, stores, and on à la carte lines.

Recently passed federal laws have instituted nutrition requirements for school meals and expanded the USDA’s power to set nutrition standards. However, before the study reported in this article, the most recent school nutrition data had been generated prior to new legislation. The authors provide current information about the availability of high-fat, high-sugar foods and beverages in elementary schools.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Bridging the Gap research program gathered data for elementary schools from 2006 through 2010. Researchers mailed surveys to food service-personnel in more than 3,000 elementary schools. The surveys asked about the types of foods available to students and the “venues” in which foods were sold.

Key Findings:

  • Compared with students in urban schools, students in suburban schools generally had more access to sweet and salty products sold in competitive venues.
  • Although compared to schools in other regions, southern schools sold more salty and sweet snacks; schools in the south were also more likely to have salad, fresh fruits and vegetables.

Federal laws have begun to regulate the types of food consumed in school. Under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, the USDA can now set nutritional standards for all foods sold in schools. Yet, students continue to have access to products high in fat, sugar, and sodium. Revealing regional patterns, this study points directly to nutritional deficiencies within the school food environment.