Got (Full Fat) Milk? Elementary Schools Still Do

Despite national efforts to limit the amount of sodas, high-fat milk and other high-calorie drinks sold in schools, most students can still purchase them.

The availability of high-fat and sugary beverages is still far too high in public elementary schools in the US, according to a study published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. Although a number of campaigns have been initiated focusing on reducing childhood obesity in American schools, researchers found that only a miniscule percentage of schools have taken action to limit drink sales to only healthy choices.

In the study, Lindsey Turner, PhD, and Frank J. Chaloupka, PhD, of the University of Illinois at Chicago, and the Institute for Health Research and Policy’s Bridging the Gap Research Program examined the availability of beverages offered in competitive venues and school lunches using a nationally representative mail-back survey. Data were collected from US public and private elementary schools during three consecutive school years from 2006 to 2009.

The researchers compared the available drinks to guidelines developed by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), which recommends that schools only have available bottled water, 100% juice, and milk with no more than 1% fat.

Turner and Chaloupka found that public elementary school students' access to beverages for sale in any competitive venue on campus—including vending machines, stores, snack bars, and/or à la carte options—increased from 49.0% in 2006-2007 to 61.3% in 2008-2009. The percentage of public school students with access to only beverages allowed under the IOM guidelines for competitive beverages increased from 10.0% to 16.1%.

They determined that access to higher-fat milk (2% or whole milk) in school lunches decreased from 77.9% of public school students in 2006-2007 to 68.3% in 2008-2009; however, flavored milk was available at lunch on most days for 92.1% of public school students.

In the South, authors reported that a least 20% of elementary school pupils could purchase sodas and other sugary beverages in vending machines, school shops, and a-la-carte lines. Similar findings were reported in children attending Midwest and West (9%) schools, and in the Northeast (14%).

Other findings from the study were as follows, according to an online report:

  • By the end of 2009, the most commonly available drinks were bottled water and low-fat milk. However, unhealthy drinks became more readily available in school stores and a-la-carte lines, compared to the 2006-2007 school year
  • 16% of students could only buy healthy drinks outside of school meals, compared to 10% before. However, the authors say the proportion is still extremely low.
  • High-fat milk was removed from lunch program of many schools, but added to competitive venues. In 2008-09, over 68% of children could purchase 2% or full-fat milk with their school lunch (compared to 77% in the previous two years), and over 35% could buy it from a competitive venue (compared to 29%).

“Despite nationwide efforts to reduce the amount of sodas, sports drinks, higher-fat milk and other high-calorie drinks sold in schools, the reality is that many students still can purchase them on campus,” said Turner. “Elementary school students are still surrounded by a variety of unhealthy beverages while at school.”

For more information:

  • Study Links Childhood Obesity to Socioeconomic Status
  • Nestle to Drop "Deceptive" Health Claims
  • First Lady Joins Forces with MLB to Strike Out Childhood Obesity

What do you think of the efforts being put forth by schools to limit the availability of unhealthy drinks to kids? Are they doing enough, or do parents and physicians have to assume more responsibility?