How Do Snack Policies Shape Student Health?

September 05, 2012

by Ashley Hofmann, HSC public policy intern

Ashley Hofmann is completing the final practicum to earn her Masters of Social Work from the University of Missouri. Her academic research focuses on disparities in access to health care and how policy can act as a catalyst for social justice.

My food philosophy is “out of sight, out of mind” – if I don’t have cookies in my kitchen, I’m less likely to eat them.  A new study shows that the same principle applies to schools as well.  The study found that students in states with strong nutrition standards for snacks gained less weight than their counterparts residing in states with weak standards or no standards at all.

States were placed into two categories based on laws regulating snack and a la carte items sold in schools, also known as competitive foods.  (Click here for a recent blog on the USDA’s proposed rules regulating snacks in schools.)  The researchers monitored the BMI of 6,300 students in 40 states between 2004 and 2007, as they progressed from fifth to eighth grade.  The results showed that over the four years, students living in states with strong nutrition laws gained 0.44 fewer BMI units, which is about 2.25 pounds for a 5-foot, 100-lb child.  While this may seem like a small number, it’s actually quite significant — imagine the effect of gaining or not gaining an extra two pounds every year!

While this is new and important information, the study is not saying that the laws are directly responsible for the decreased weight gain, only that there is a correlation.  Many child health experts believe that these types of school nutrition polices are a key step in the right direction when it comes to creating environments that support health.  These policies also reinforce healthy messages students get through nutrition education and help students develop good eating habits. As Dr. David Ludwig, an obesity specialist at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital, pointed out, “What are the downsides of improving the food environment for children today?”

Something we see consistently at HSC is that policies, such as the state laws in this study, really do make a difference in student health.  Without them, progress is limited to situations where a parent or teacher not only is passionate about healthy food, but also has the motivation, time, and resources to actually make it a priority.  Strong school nutrition laws, along with the assistance and incentives that can come with them, provide schools with a foundation on which to build health-promoting environments.

The good news is that we’re starting to see more strong policies that support student health.  Proposed recommendations in a recent Institute of Medicine report, along with higher nutrition standards in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, are putting more emphasis on the role of government, both federal and local, in creating environments where health is a priority and making the healthy choice the easy choice.

Dr. Daniel Taber, an author of the study and fellow at the Institute for Health Research and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said that nutrition standards are most effective when they “are specific, required and consistent.”  Strong language is an important factor for school food laws to be implemented and have a meaningful impact, but so is the support of parents, teachers, and school administrators.  Here is a handy guide from the CDC that discusses ways for parents, teachers, and staff to support healthier school food options.

Does your state or school district have polices for snack foods sold in schools?  If so, how do they shape the wellness environment?

Plus: Take a look at this infographic, designed for the First Lady’s Let’s Move! Initiative, which shows snack options in school vending machines across the country.