U.S. Middle and High Schools Report Limited Progress in Creating Healthier Environment for Students

Schools improving some nutrition practices, not advancing efforts to support physical activity.
    • August 14, 2012

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 improve the nutritional quality of foods and beverages offered to students, but significant efforts are still needed to promote healthy eating and help students be active.

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. However, most middle and high school students still had easy access to pizza, french fries, sugary drinks, and junk foods throughout the school day.

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 that affect students from different socioeconomic, racial or ethnic groups.

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. The report 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.

Other key findings:

  • Despite progress to improve the nutritional quality of school lunches, unhealthy snacks like candy, chips, cookies, and ice cream were still available to more than one-half of secondary students through the National School Lunch Program in 2010.
  • In 2010, 65 percent of middle school students and 90 percent of high school students could purchase sugary drinks from vending machines, à la carte lines, school stores, and/or snack bars.
  • Almost two-thirds of middle school students and more than three-quarters of high school students could buy candy, chips, cookies, ice cream, or other unhealthy snacks from vending machines, à la carte lines, school stores, and/or snack bars in 2010.
  • Students in low-SES schools and Black and Latino students were less likely than their peers in predominantly White or high-SES schools to have salads available at school.
  • Physical education was required for some part of the school year for 83 percent of middle school students and only 34 percent of high school students in 2010.
  • Students in low-SES schools were less likely than students in more affluent schools to attend a school that offered formal nutrition education or one that shared 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.