Health Impact Assessment Looks at Potential Impact of USDA Nutrition Standards on Student Health, School Budgets

Jun 26, 2012, 6:12 PM, Posted by

Jessica Donze Black, Kids' Safe & Healthful Foods Project

Updating nutrition standards for snacks and beverages sold in school so that they meet the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans could help students maintain a healthy weight and support school food service revenue, according to a first-of-its-kind health impact assessment (HIA) released today by the Kids’ Safe & Healthful Foods Project and the Health Impact Project. This is the first HIA completed to inform a new federal rule. The Kids’ Safe & Healthful Foods Project and Health Impact Project are both collaborations of The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

NewPublicHealth spoke with Jessica Donze Black, RD, MPH, project director of the Kids' Safe & Healthful Foods Project, about the HIA findings.

The snacks and drinks sold in school vending machines, stores and à la carte lines are sometimes called “competitive foods” because they compete with school meals for students’ spending. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) last issued nutrition standards for competitive foods in 1979, but they mostly covered foods sold in cafeterias at meal times. Since then, says Black, the nutrition environment has changed dramatically, and now there is food sold all over the school throughout the school day. In December of 2010, Congress directed USDA to update those standards, and the proposal is due soon.

The HIA was designed to assess the health impact of the updated nutrition standards, as well as their impact on school and district budgets. According to Black, the HIA found that changing the school environment to make healthier foods more available would change students’ eating patterns, increasing their consumption of fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy. That change, says Black, could ultimately to lead to less chronic disease.


The other good news from the HIA, according to Black, is that school districts can make these changes to the school food environment without losing revenue. In some cases, they even end up increasing revenue. Black says that is because as schools take less healthy options out of the snack food environment, children tend to buy more school meals, for which schools get reimbursed.

“So, on the health side, now they’re eating well-rounded meals that actually have fruits and vegetables and other healthier foods included, but there is also benefit on the economic side because schools get federal reimbursement for every school meal they sell,” said Black.

Based on the HIA findings, the two projects recommend that USDA establish nutrition standards for all foods and beverages sold on school grounds. The full report offers more details on what those standards should be. The authors also make suggestions for how best to implement new standards, such as properly training school staff who will be responsible for carrying them out, and involving students in the decision-making about what foods and drinks will be sold.

Black says the HIA shows it’s important to think about how schools can help prioritize health, because healthier kids are better able to concentrate at school, and are less likely to be absent. “This HIA should get us thinking creatively about what else we can do that would be similarly health promoting and not have negative cost consequences,” says Black.

“It’s really imperative that the Department of Agriculture issue the proposed standards for the school nutrition environment,” says Black. “We’ve got to get those rules out there so that ultimately we do see changes at the school level in terms of healthier food environments. I have three little kids and my vision is that when their own kids go off to school, they say, you know, mom, dad, I heard they used to sell chips at your school. That’s crazy, who would do that?”

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.