School Policies and Practices to Improve Health and Prevent Obesity - Volume 2

A report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Bridging the Gap program shows that the nation’s public secondary schools are making some progress to offer students healthier foods and beverages, but most students can still buy sugary drinks and junk foods.

In 2010, nearly all middle and high school students could buy competitive beverages, those sold in vending machines, à la carte lines, school stores, and snack bars. Although many schools have removed regular soft drinks, 65 percent of middle and 90 percent of high school students still could purchase sugary drinks from competitive venues in 2010. That same year, almost two-thirds of middle and more than three-quarters of high school students could buy unhealthy snacks like candy, chips, cookies, and ice cream in such venues.

Schools have made little to no progress to encourage physical activity during or after the school day. Participation in sports and physical activity clubs remained low, and physical education requirements for high school students were especially lax.  The report also highlights disparities in health-related practices across socioeconomic levels and across the racial and ethnic groups served by middle and high schools.

Conclusions in the report 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 also includes policy opportunities for increasing physical activity that are relevant as Congress considers 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:

  • Among high school students, the availability of sugary drinks, french fries and unhealthy snacks offered as part of the National School Lunch Program declined significantly from 2007 to 2010.
  • Unhealthy snacks like candy, chips, cookies, and ice cream were available through the National School Lunch Program to more than one-half of secondary students in 2010.
  • Students in less affluent schools, and Black and Latino students, were less likely than their peers in more affluent or predominantly White schools to have salads available at school.
  • Physical education was required for some part of the school year for 83 percent of middle school but only 34 percent of high school students in 2010.
  • Students in less affluent schools were less likely than students in more affluent schools to attend a school that offered formal nutrition education or one that shares its recreational facilities outside of school hours.

The report provides updated results from one of the most comprehensive studies of health-related policies and practices in U.S. secondary schools to date, which was released in May 2011 . Results are based on surveys of administrators from nationally representative samples of public middle and high schools for four school years, from 2006–07 to 2009–10.

In January, Bridging the Gap released a companion report summarizing national survey results from elementary schools.