Wide Availability of High-Calorie Beverages in US Elementary Schools

Year in Research Nominee for 2010

A new study published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine finds that almost half of the nation’s public elementary school students could buy unhealthy beverages such as sodas, sports drinks and higher-fat milk during the 2008–09 school year.

According to lead author, Lindsey Turner, Ph.D., such easy access likely traces to the increased number of elementary schools selling these drinks in their stores and à la carte cafeteria lines. Turner is a researcher at Bridging the Gap, a nationally recognized research program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF).

The authors analyzed the most recent data available, using nationally representative surveys of elementary schools during the 2006–07, 2007–08 and 2008–09 academic years. They compared the beverages sold to national nutrition guidelines developed by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), which recommends that only bottled water, 100 percent juice and lower-fat (nonfat or 1%) milk be offered in elementary schools. The study found that few schools limited beverage sales to just healthy choices.

Key Findings:

  • Sugar-sweetened beverages were widely available in the South, where obesity rates are the highest in the nation. In 2008–09, more than 20 percent of public elementary school students in the South could buy sodas and other sugary drinks in competitive venues like vending machines, school stores and à la carte lines.
  • The prevalence of both healthy and unhealthy beverages rose in schools. By 2008–09, lower-fat milk and bottled water were the most commonly available drinks, but more students could purchase unhealthy drinks in stores and à la carte lines than in 2006–07.
  • Many schools removed higher-fat milk from their lunch programs but began selling it in competitive venues. More than 68 percent of students could buy 2 percent or whole milk as part of a school lunch in 2008–09, down from 77 percent two years earlier. During the same period, the percentage of students who could buy higher-fat milk from a competitive venue increased from 29 percent to 35 percent.

The authors agree with the Institute of Medicine's guidelines and note that federal, state and local governments can help schools comply by setting policies that support access to only healthy drinks and decrease access to unhealthy ones.

The study is part of an ongoing series funded by RWJF and conducted by Bridging the Gap to examine school district policies and school practices relevant to childhood obesity.