Since 2006-2007, schools participating in federally-funded school meal programs have been required to have wellness programs. A new study in American Journal of Preventive Medicine finds that schools with more robust wellness programs offer healthier foods and beverages, including foods offered in vending machines, school stores and a la carte sales.
"We were interested in evaluating the effects of school wellness policies because at the time, competitive foods and beverages were largely unregulated," says lead author Nancy Hood, Ph.D., MPH, who was a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research at the time of the study. "The new federal nutrition standards for competitive foods and beverages were just released this summer and will not be fully implemented until 2014."
School based wellness programs are required to have goals, nutrition guidelines, implementation plans, and participant involvement. Schools with more robust wellness programs were found to offer more healthful food options, such as low-fat foods and whole grains and fewer less-healthy foods.
"Most of the associations we tested were statistically significant and in the expected direction," Hood said. "Although we cannot say that wellness policies caused better foods and beverages, our findings suggest that wellness policies likely play a role in improving school environments."
The researchers also found that schools with mostly non-white students generally had weaker wellness policies. The authors suggest providing technical assistance or other support to help these schools implement or improve their policies.
"This was a really good study that built upon previous work and looked at individual states instead of a national sample," said Marlene Schwartz, Ph.D., acting director for the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University. "The idea of requiring district wellness policies in 2006 was a new one—no one knew if they would have any impact—and indeed they did."
Students obviously eat and drink both inside and outside of school, and school administration can only control what happens within its walls, Schwartz added. "As more research is done, I suspect we'll see there's a measurable improvement, that when schools take unhealthy food away, students don't compensate by eating more unhealthy food out of school overall."
Source: The University of Michigan