School Food Policies Can Improve Current, Future Student Health

Providing free fruits and vegetables and limiting sugary drinks in schools could have positive health effects in both the short and long term, according to a new Food-PRICE study led by researchers from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston.

Childhood is a key time to develop attitudes toward food and nutrition and potentially lifelong eating habits. School food policies seek to provide and/or encourage healthful food choices during the school day, from offering students free fruits and vegetables outside of standard school meals to outlining limitations on the availability, portion sizes, or sales of sugary drinks.

"Standards such as Smart Snacks in School have largely eliminated sugary drinks in US public schools, but potential effects on obesity in children or long-term health are not known. Also, elementary schools in low-income neighborhoods often have free fresh fruits and vegetables programs, but these have not been expanded to other elementary, middle, or high schools; and potential long-term health effects have not been evaluated," says senior author Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, DrPH, dean of the Friedman School.

The study, recently published in PLOS ONE, used a comparative risk assessment model to estimate the impact that implementing national food policies in US elementary, middle, and high schools could have on dietary intake and BMI in children and what cardiometabolic disease outcomes might be influenced in adulthood.

"As children consume more than one-third of their daily meals and snacks in school, having policies focused on healthy food options in school is important. What we need to know is how these policies are changing food choice, nutrition, and health," says Katherine L. Rosettie, MPH, first and corresponding author of the study.

Fruits and Vegetables
The researchers estimated that a provision for free fruits and vegetables would lead to an increase in habitual fruit consumption across school-age children over a period of one to two years, as follows:

• 17% increase for children in elementary school;
• 22% in middle school; and
• 25% in high school.

Sugary Drinks
A limitation on sugary drinks would decrease habitual consumption and have a modest effect on BMI across school-age children, according to the authors, as follows:

• 27% decrease in consumption and 0.7% decrease in BMI for children in elementary school;
• 19% and 0.5% in middle school; and
• 15% and 0.5% in high school.

In analyses including the potential effects of a national fruits and vegetables provision on BMI, the researchers estimated an additional 0.1% reduction.

If such school food policies had been implemented when current adults were children, the researchers estimated that a provision for fruits and vegetables would increase fruit intake of these adults by 19% and vegetable intake by 2% and decrease consumption of sugary drinks by 24%. If they had been implemented together, the researchers estimate that the free fruits and vegetables provision and limitation on sugary drinks would prevent more than 22,000 adult deaths per year due to heart disease, diabetes, or stroke, or 3% of total annual cardiometabolic deaths. Reduced consumption of sugary drinks was estimated to have the largest impact, averting more than 14,000 adult deaths per year.

In addition to health outcomes, understanding the dietary and nutritional effects of existing policies also may help estimate the potential impact of their expansion or repeal.

"Identifying the benefits of school food policies helps to inform how to enhance these programs as well as the potential for harm if they were to be weakened or cut," Mozaffarian says. "Our findings suggest that eliminating sugary drinks and providing free fruits and vegetables in schools has small effects on obesity in childhood but real potential for meaningful long-term health benefits into adulthood."

— Source: Tufts University