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Health & Parenting

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School Vending Machines Still Offer Too Many Sugary Snacks

Half of Elementary School Students Have Access to Foods With Little Nutritional Value

Access to Unhealthy Food Still Available

In the study, researchers surveyed more than 2,600 public elementary schools and about 1,200 private elementary schools concerning access to competitive food venues on school campuses each academic year from 2006 to 2010.

The results showed that access to competitive food venues and availability of most products did not change much over time.

By the 2009-2010 school year, about half of all public and private elementary school students had access to one or more competitive food venue. Nearly all of these venues still offered sugary foods, although candy was not widely available.

One exception was the availability of regular-fat ice cream products, which decreased over time. There was not a corresponding increase in the availability of low-fat ice cream products.

In fact, access to healthy options in competitive food venues was limited. Only about two-thirds of students with access were able to purchase salads, vegetables, or fruits in any competitive food venue.

Differences Between Schools

The survey also revealed several differences between different types of schools:

  • Students in suburban schools had more access to vending machines and other competitive food venues than students in urban schools (53% vs. 44%).
  • Suburban students were more likely to be able to purchase salty, low-fat, and sweet products in competitive venues.
  • Compared with public schools, private schools had more snack bars on campus with more access to candy and salty snacks.

In addition, researchers say there were important regional differences. Students in the South had more access to competitive food venues and salty and sweet products than those in other regions of the U.S.

“However, among public school students with access to competitive foods, those in the South also had greater availability of healthier foods compared with students in the Midwest or the West,” write the researchers. “These results are intriguing considering that childhood obesity rates are highest in the South.”

In an editorial that accompanies the study, experts say the results highlight that limiting access to competitive food venues in schools is only one of many strategies needed to fight childhood obesity.

“Competitive foods are often low in nutritional value and high in sugar, fat, and calories,” writes Thomas N. Robinson, MD, MPH of Stanford University School of Medicine. “Their availability may increase stigmatization of and decrease participation in the school meal program, and they send mixed messages about healthful nutrition.”

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