School Policies and Practices to Improve Health and Prevent Obesity

A report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Bridging the Gap program finds that more elementary schools are offering whole grains and low-fat milks for lunch, but there has been no progress to cut back on foods that are high in fat, sugar and/or sodium, such as pizza and deep-fried potatoes.

Student access to competitive beverages—those sold outside of school meal programs through vending machines, à la carte lines, school stores and snack bars—continues to increase, mostly because many schools are introducing à la carte lines in the cafeteria. There also is an emerging trend among elementary schools to allow only healthy competitive beverages, such as water, 100% juice and low-fat milk, to be sold on campus. Schools report virtually no changes to physical education, recess or after-school programs that encourage physical activity.

According to the report, schools have made progress to implement some wellness policy provisions required by the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004, but continue to struggle with those related to competitive foods and beverages. The report examines four school years, from 2006–07 to 2009–10, and describes major trends that affect tens of millions of students.

Its conclusions provide timely guidance about nutritional guidelines and wellness policies for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to consider as it continues to implement the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. It includes policy opportunities for increasing physical activity that are relevant to the pending reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Findings also can help inform state and local policy-makers about successes and areas where new efforts are needed to create a healthier school environment.

Key Findings:

  • From 2006–07 to 2009–10, there has been a significant increase in the percentage of public elementary students who were offered whole grains (from 15% to 21%) and only nonfat or 1% milk (from 21% to 34%) in lunches sold at schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program.
  • Lunches often include high-fat items. In 2009–10, ninety-nine percent of public elementary students were offered pizza some days, most days or every day, and 72 percent were offered deep-fried potatoes, such as fries.
  • In 2009–10, sixty percent of public elementary students could purchase competitive beverages from vending machines, à la carte lines, school stores or snack bars. This represents a significant increase from 49 percent in 2006–07. Most of the increase is attributed to schools adding à la carte lines in the cafeteria.
  • The percentage of public elementary school students who could buy only healthy beverages outside of school meals, including water, 100% juice, nonfat or 1% milk, increased significantly—from 10 percent in 2006–07 to 19 percent in 2009–10—but remained low overall.
  • Only 55 percent of public elementary school students attended a school with a wellness policy that included guidelines for competitive foods and beverages, as required by the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004.
  • Very few students had the opportunity to get enough physical activity. Only 22 percent of public 3rd grade students were offered at least 150 minutes of physical education per week, as recommended by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education.

This report provides updated results from one of the most comprehensive studies of health-related policies and practices in U.S. elementary schools to date, which was released in November 2010. Results are based on surveys of administrators from nationally representative samples of public and private elementary schools.