School Policies and Practices to Improve Health and Prevent Obesity

A comprehensive study from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Bridging the Gap program shows that the nation’s public secondary schools are making an effort to offer students healthier options in the cafeteria. Through the National School Lunch Program, most schools provide fruits and vegetables, more are offering whole grains and fewer are serving french fries. However, pizza, high-fat milk, junk food and sugary drinks are still widely available through the federal program. Findings also show that schools have made little progress in helping students be active during and after the school day.

The report, School Policies and Practices to Improve Health and Prevent Obesity: National Secondary School Survey Results, examined practices that affect nutrition, physical activity and obesity prevention for a nationally representative sample of middle and high school students. Its conclusions provide timely guidance about nutritional guidelines and wellness policies for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to consider as it begins to implement the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. It also includes policy opportunities for increasing physical activity that are relevant to the pending reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Among the key findings from the 2007–08 school year:

  • Virtually all schools offered vegetables and fresh fruits as part of the National School Lunch Program some days or most/every day. However, the same was also true for pizza.
  • Compared with the previous school year, more students were offered whole grains and fewer were offered french fries as part of the National School Lunch Program.
  • More than one-half of secondary students had access to snacks like candy, chips, cookies and ice cream through the National School Lunch Program.
  • Sugar-sweetened beverages were available to 71 percent of middle school and 92 percent of high school students in vending machines, à la carte lines, stores or snack bars on campus.
  • Physical education was required for some part of the school year for 83 percent of middle school and only 35 percent of high school students.
  • Participation in interscholastic and intramural physical activity programs was low, especially among students at less affluent schools and schools that had a majority Black or Latino student body.

According to the report, districts and schools with students most at risk for obesity, based on economic status, race or ethnicity, were less likely to have a wellness policy in place. It also shows that many schools and districts had not yet implemented nutritional guidelines for all foods, or set goals for physical activity, both of which were required by the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004.

Results were based on surveys of school administrators during the 2006–07 and 2007–08 school years. The accompanying full monograph will be available in summer 2011 at