Teens' healthy food choices foiled by early lunch, soft drink machine income and parents who cater

Penn State researchers have identified three previously unreported factors that foil the efforts of high school students to make healthy food choices – early lunch, school income from soft drink incentives, and parents who bring fast food to the cafeteria for their kids.

Dr. Claudia Probart, associate professor of nutritional sciences who led the study, says, "This new information may be useful to school wellness councils as they work toward developing wellness policies as mandated by the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004 as well as structuring school environments to promote more healthful food choices by students."

The study is detailed in the current (February) issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association in a paper, Factors Associated With The Offering and Sale of Competitive Foods and School Lunch Participation. The authors are Probart; Elaine McDonnell, project coordinator; Dr. Terryl Hartman, associate professor of nutritional sciences; J. Elaine Weirich, project coordinator; and Lisa Bailey-Davis, director of operations, Pennsylvania Advocates for Nutrition and Activity, Penn State Harrisburg.

The Penn State researchers sent surveys to school foodservice directors at half (271) of the public high schools in Pennsylvania and received 84 percent participation. The schools were representative of the entire population of high schools in Pennsylvania based on region, rate of free and reduced-price lunch participants, enrollment and percent rural.

Twenty-five percent of the foodservice directors reported that lunch periods are scheduled before 10:30 a.m. and the researchers found that an early lunch start predicted higher a la carte sales. A la Carte foods are those sold in addition to the federally-regulated meal program. These foods are primarily unregulated and may be of lower nutritional value.

They write, "Students who have early lunch periods may purchase a la carte items to eat later in the day when they are likely to become hungry because they have eaten an early lunch. This seems to be a new finding and suggests that timing issues may be important considerations in encouraging the purchase of more nutritious food options."

The study found that a la carte sales generate almost $700 per day per school among the schools surveyed and $450 of that income comes from the sale of a la carte items that have few federal requirements compared to the school meals.

Income from soft drink incentives also appears to play a role in the nutrition environment, the study found. The existence of soft drink machines owned by soft drink companies, for which the school or district receives a percentage of sales, predicted a higher number of vending machines per student. When there were more vending machines, there tended to be less participation in the hot lunch program.

Probart notes that these findings prompt consideration of tough issues; for example, if changes are made in a la carte offerings and vending contracts which result in decreased sales, where will any lost revenue be found? Almost 85 percent of school foodservice programs receive no financial support from their school districts.

Another factor affecting the school nutrition environment that some schools reported getting under control was parents. Enforcement of a policy prohibiting parents or students from bringing fast food into the cafeteria increased participation in the school meal program. About 25 percent of the foodservice directors reported having such a policy and that it was enforced. Another 28 percent reported that they had no such policy or recommendation.

Probart notes, "It's important to pay attention to all of the factors facing students – not just whether federally-regulated meals are available -- in order to make it easy and desirable for kids to make healthy choices."

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The study was supported by the Pennsylvania Department of Health through Grant/Cooperative Agreement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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