Availability and Consumption of Competitive Foods in US Public Schools

The National School Lunch Program has the capacity to reduce consumption of low-nutrient, energy-dense foods (LNEDs) among schoolchildren. Data from the third School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study (SNDA-III) indicates that consumption of competitive foods is widespread.

Competitive foods are those foods consumed in school and not obtained from subsidized school lunches or breakfasts (i.e., snack foods). This article presents research related to the consumption of competitive foods among participants and nonparticipants in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). SNDA-III field interviewers used three separate checklists to document the types and availability of competitive foods. A two-step process was used to assess competitive food consumption in children: onsite observations and a 24-hour recall.

Key Findings:

  • Competitive food consumers who ate school lunches obtained 7 percent of daily energy from LNEDs compared with 10 percent daily intakes for competitive food consumers who did not eat lunch. 
  • Children who consumed competitive foods obtained more than 150 calories from LNEDs (previous studies suggest that reduction in energy intake of up to 150 calories could have prevented weight gain observed in children from 1988–2002).
  • Vending machines were present in over 80 percent of high schools.

SNDA-III strengthens understanding of how competitive foods interact with the school meal programs.