School Food Environments and Policies in US Public Schools

This study, one of the most comprehensive examinations of school foods and policies to date, investigated school food environments and policies in U.S. public schools and their various characteristics. Data were analyzed using the third School Nutrition and Dietary Assessment study (2005) and included a sample of 395 U.S. public schools and 129 school districts in 38 states. The data consisted of school reports of foods and beverages made available through the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). In addition, on-site observations were made in a subsample of public schools for foods and beverages sold through vending machines or sold separate and apart from the NSLP. A 17-point scale (with zero being the least healthy and 17 being the most healthy), called a food environment summary score, was used to calculate each school’s characteristics, including lunches, competitive foods and other food-related policies and practices.

Key Findings:

  • Vending machines were present in elementary (17%), middle (82%) and high schools (97%).
  • Food items sold separately (a la carte) were found in 71 percent of elementary schools, 92 percent of middle schools and 93 percent of high schools. Of these schools, almost 80 percent provided unhealthy food items in their a la carte options.
  • The food environment summary score was higher (healthier) in lower grade levels.
  • The food environment score was not significantly associated with the percentage of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch or the percentage of students who belong to a racial/ethnic minority.

The authors conclude that the higher the grade level, the lower the food environment summary score indicating less healthy foods available. “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., of Mathematica Policy Research. “High schools are also significantly more likely to have fundraising activities with sweet and salty snacks.”