In this first-ever study designed to analyze which school policies regarding childhood obesity have been enacted at the state-level across the U.S., the data reveal states are more likely to have adopted guidelines regarding food and nutrition than guidelines regarding physical activity or weight assessment. Notably, the study also found states with the highest rates of childhood obesity were overall more likely to have adopted school-based obesity prevention policies.
With childhood obesity at epidemic levels, there is interest across the country in enacting policies within schools that promote healthy weights in kids. Using data from the 2006 School Health Policies and Programs Study, this study identified distinct policy actions and organized them into broad topic areas for analysis: 100 elements of Food Service and Nutrition Policies; 146 elements of Physical Activity and Education Policies; and two Weight Assessment Policies. Then, based on the 2003 National Survey of Children’s Health, this cross-sectional analysis compared the prevalence of obesity in children ages 10-17 in each state to each state’s adoption of various anti-obesity policies.
This study is just the beginning of analyzing the relationships between state-level school policies and childhood obesity prevalence. For example, this study did not look at the temporal relationships between policy enactment and childhood obesity. The data raise many questions, such as whether policies caused obesity or were in response to obesity, and whether policies are actually being enforced or effective. But overall, the authors find the lack of state efforts, especially for physical activity/education, to be “disturbing.” There is clearly a preference for enacting food service/nutrition policies which may be due to public attention being focused on school food and the fact that physical education changes can impact academic time. The authors call for a long-term, longitudinal study of the enactment and enforcement of school policies and their impact on the weight and behaviors of children.