U.S. Secondary Schools Serving Up Unhealthy Foods

More than 9 in 10 high schools sell foods and beverages in vending machines and a la carte.

    • July 7, 2008

The foods and food policies in U.S. public schools become significantly less healthy as students progress from elementary to high school, according to new research published today in Pediatrics. More than 96 percent of high schools have vending machines, and 91 percent of them sell some unhealthy options, while only 17 percent of elementary schools have vending machines on campus. In addition, 93 percent of high schools and 92 percent of middle schools sell foods and beverages a la carte, and nearly 80 percent of these schools offer unhealthy options in their a la carte sales.

"High schools are much more likely to have vending machines, snack bars and contracts with beverage companies than are elementary schools," said lead author Daniel Finkelstein, Ph.D., Ed.M., of Mathematica Policy Research. "High schools also are significantly more likely to have fundraising activities with sweet and salty snacks." The study, School Food Environments and Policies in U.S. Public Schools, was supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) through its Healthy Eating Research program. It provides one of the most comprehensive examinations of school foods and policies to date, scoring the food environments in 395 schools in 38 states.

While researchers found that schools with a higher percentage of children from low-income families were significantly less likely to offer fruits or raw vegetables each day, they did not find an association between schools' overall food environment and policy scores and the percentage of students who were racial or ethnic minorities or who were eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches.

Researchers also found:

  • About 55 percent of schools examined have an agreement with a beverage company that allows the company to be the sole distributor of sodas and other beverages in the school. 
  • Only 43 percent participate in a government fruit and vegetable program that provides schools with fresh produce. 
  • In fewer than 20 percent of schools is the average lunch offered to students low in fat (no more than 30 percent of calories from fat).

"At the same time that national data show obesity rates increasing among our adolescents and teens, this study shows that older children have the worst food environments in schools," said Mary Story, Ph.D., at the University of Minnesota and director of RWJF's Healthy Eating Research program. "We have to make sure kids of all ages have healthy foods at school."

Finkelstein and colleagues used data from the most recent School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study, conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2005. They examined three different factors:

  • Policies and Practices. Schools were scored on whether or not they: had a wellness policy, a health advisory council, nutrient requirements for purchased foods; a distribution agreement with a beverage company; offered foods or beverages from brand-name or chain restaurants; provided nutritional information for breakfast and lunch; taught nutrition in every grade; and participated in the Department of Defense's Fresh Fruit and Vegetable program or state Farm-to-School program that provides schools with fresh produce. 
  • Nutritional Quality of Lunch. Through analysis of lunch menus it was determined whether schools offered whole milk, 2% milk, fresh fruit, raw vegetables, french fries or dessert; and if the average meal is low-fat (no more than 30 percent of calories from fat). 
  • Foods Outside of the Cafeteria. Researchers assessed whether schools sold food in school stores or snack bars, used foods in fundraising activities, or had vending machines either inside or outside of the cafeteria.


About Healthy Eating Research
Healthy Eating Research is a $16-million national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The program supports research on environmental and policy strategies to promote healthy eating among children to prevent childhood obesity, especially among the low-income and racial and ethnic populations at highest risk for obesity. For more information, visit www.healthyeatingresearch.org.

About the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation focuses on the pressing health and health care issues facing our country. As the nation's largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to improving the health and health care of all Americans, the Foundation works with a diverse group of organizations and individuals to identify solutions and achieve comprehensive, meaningful and timely change. For more than 35 years, the Foundation has brought experience, commitment, and a rigorous, balanced approach to the problems that affect the health and health care of those it serves. Helping Americans lead healthier lives and get the care they need, the Foundation expects to make a difference in our lifetime.

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