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The State of Nutrition and Physical Activity in Our Schools

Summary of Findings

Chapter One | Chapter Two | Chapter Three | Chapter Four | Chapter Five | Chapter Six

Chapter One

  • Thirty-four percent of schools included in this study provided the last student in the lunch line with only 10 minutes or less to eat his or her lunch.
  • The average time between the last student in line receiving his or her lunch and the end of the lunch period was 13 minutes. This did not vary significantly by level of school. .
  • As opportunity time to eat decreased, students, cafeteria staff, and lunch monitors were significantly more likely to report that students had insufficient time to buy and eat their lunches. .
  • When asked what they did when they did not have enough time to buy and eat lunch, students reported buying à la carte snacks, eating from vending machines, bringing lunch from home, skipping lunch entirely, or buying lunch and throwing away a large portion. .
  • In order to accommodate the entire student body, some large schools scheduled as many as seven lunch periods, and these lunches started as early as 9:25 a.m. Fifty percent of the middle and high schools included in this study scheduled the first lunch period before 11:00 a.m., despite national recommendations that school lunches not begin before this hour.
  • Providing students with constructive activities at the end of lunch can allow for longer lunch periods without increasing behavioral problems.
  • Decreasing wait in line by adding extra serving lines or overlapping lunch waves can allow more students to be served more quickly and can reduce the discrepancy in opportunity time to eat between the first student in line and the last.

Chapter Two

  • Ninety-five percent of the schools in this study participated in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). n At the schools in this study that participated in the NSLP, an average of 53 percent of students bought a lunch on a typical day.
  • Student participation in the NSLP was found to decrease with increasing school level. In elementary schools, an average of 59 percent of students bought a qualifying lunch on a typical day. This value dropped to 54 percent in middle schools, and 44 percent in high schools.
  • Most school districts in this study provided little or no financial support to the food service program. The majority of food service programs were nearly one hundred percent financially self-supporting, aside from the subsidies and commodities provided by the NSLP. This means that the money made from selling school lunches and other foods must pay not only for the food itself, but also for staff salaries, benefits, staff training, and kitchen equipment.
  • Some school districts concentrated more than others on encouraging students to eat lunches containing all of the required components. This is important, as fruit and vegetable components are those most commonly ignored. Focus on fruit and vegetable consumption did not appear to be related to either school level or Economic Reference Group (ERG). In fact, one of the districts that appeared to be most focused on encouraging students to eat the fruit and vegetable lunch components was in the lowest ERG. This suggests that with a commitment from the food service staff and administration, all schools can provide students with nutritious lunches, including appealing fruits and vegetables.
  • Food service directors and cafeteria managers reported that, on average, 32 percent of their food came from the federal government commodities program.
  • At 63 percent of the schools visited, food service directors or cafeteria managers reported that the commodities they received helped them to provide healthy lunches.
  • Fresh fruits and vegetables are currently not available to school food service programs through the federal commodities program. A majority of food service directors and cafeteria managers, including those who felt strongly that the commodities helped them provide healthy lunches, reported this to be a significant gap in the federal commodities program.
  • Oil-fried French fries were so popular at many schools that some lunch monitors reported students buying lunches for the fries only, and throwing everything else away.
  • Food service directors and cafeteria managers who participated in “Farm-to-School” programs reported that these programs were very successful. The most commonly mentioned programs were those featuring fresh Connecticut apples.

Chapter Three

  • School food service programs often sell a variety of foods and beverages during lunchtime in addition to the reimbursable meals offered as part of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). Compared to NSLP lunches, which are required to meet federally regulated nutrition standards, competitive foods are relatively low in nutrient density and high in fat, added sugars, and calories.
  • In the study, the most common foods sold in competition with the reimbursable lunches were ice cream, cookies, potato chips, sweetened beverages, water, and prepackaged baked goods such as donuts, cupcakes, and honey buns.
  • While the federal government prohibits the sale of “foods of minimal nutritional value” and the State of Connecticut prohibits the sale of “extra foods,” these regulations do not restrict the sale of many higher-fat and/or higher-sugar snack items, such as potato chips, cookies, prepackaged baked goods, French fries, or sweetened beverages.
  • Many food service directors and cafeteria managers argue that without the competitive food sales, they could not afford to run their programs. Since school districts rarely provide significant financial support for these programs, they cannot simply cut off this source of revenue, even if that revenue source is negatively impacting student health.
  • While some elementary schools have rules that prohibit the purchase of competitive foods instead of lunch, this was rarely the case at the middle or high school level. In fact, at 92 percent of the middle and high schools in this study, there were no rules whatsoever restricting the purchase of competitive foods either from the à la carte service or from the cafeteria-run vending machines.
  • The quantity of foods sold in competition with the NSLP lunches was found to differ by school level. Competitive foods were available à la carte in 100 percent of the high schools included in this study and were available in cafeteriarun vending machines in 63 percent of those schools. All middle schools sold à la carte items, and 45 percent had cafeteria-operated vending machines. Seventy-eight percent of elementary schools sold foods à la carte, but only 22 percent provided cafeteria-operated vending machines.
  • Food service directors reported that 19 percent of elementary students, 47 percent of middle school students, and 57 percent of high school students purchased a competitive food item on a typical day.
  • At the elementary school level, 29 percent of the directors or managers felt that they were somewhat or completely dependent on the income from competitive food sales to support the school lunch program. This value rose to 70 percent in middle schools, and to 80 percent in high schools.
  • Despite these fiscal concerns, the abundance of higher-fat, higher-sugar, and lower-nutrient competitive foods is not healthy. It conveys to children a poor message about nutrition, and may encourage students to choose competitive foods over nutritionally balanced meals.
  • By incorporating à la carte items into NSLP qualifying meals and by increasing the nutritional quality of all the competitive food items offered, schools can improve their nutritional environment.

Chapter Four

  • At 80 percent of the schools in this study, opportunities to eat and drink were not limited to the cafeteria during lunchtime. In fact, students in many schools had access to a variety of food and beverage items throughout the day.
  • Food and beverage items were available outside of the cafeteria food service program from many alternate sources, including school-operated vending machines, stores, classroom parties, fundraisers, and food offered to students as rewards for either academic achievement or good behavior.
  • There are no nutritional constraints or restrictions whatsoever on foods or beverages available outside of the cafeteria food service program. Federal and State nutrition requirements apply only to the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs, and, to a lesser extent, other foods and beverages sold during and around lunchtime.
  • School-operated vending machines were available at 81 percent of the high schools in this study, and as many as 15 school-run vending machines were observed in a single school. n Vending machines were operated by particular departments, such as the athletic or foreign language department, by student organizations, such as the Future Business Leaders of America, or by the school administration.
  • Soda was the most commonly available item in school-run vending machines. It was offered in 69 percent of the high schools in this study.
  • Sixty-nine percent of the high schools in this study had a school store on the premises where the merchandise included food or beverage items. The most commonly offered foods and beverages reported at school stores were soda, candy, cookies, and potato chips, all of which are high in fat and/or sugar.
  • High school stores were most often run by student organizations, such as the Future Business Leaders of America or the Junior ROTC. n Just five of the twenty-three middle and K-8 schools in this study operated vending machines, and no elementary schools contained non-cafeteria operated vending machines.
  • Just three of the forty elementary and middle schools in this study operated a store that sold food or beverage items. These three stores were operated by student groups such as the student council, and sold items such as candy, granola bars, potato chips, and soda.
  • Sixty-one percent of the administrators interviewed in this study reported that their school participated in some type of food-based fundraiser.
  • Many of the foods sold for fundraisers, such as candy bars and lollipops, were available on a relatively regular basis, and were often consumed by students in school.
  • Over a third of the students in this study reported that they usually came to school without having eaten breakfast. Students who do not eat breakfast often come to school hungry, and may purchase something to eat at school. If the school provides vending machines or school stores stocked with candy and sodas, this is likely to be what the student will choose to eat.
  • Just 46 percent of the food service programs at schools in this study provided students with a breakfast option.

Chapter Five

  • The U.S. Department of Education recommends that elementary schools provide at least 50 hours of nutrition education per year in order to impact children's eating behavior.
  • Elementary school teachers participating in this study reported that students in their schools received an average of 3 hours of nutrition education per year, with a range of 0 to 5 hours.
  • Middle school teachers participating in this study reported that students in their schools received an average of 6 hours of nutrition education per year, with a range of 0 to 30 hours.
  • High school teachers participating in this study reported that students in their schools received an average of 3 hours of nutrition education per year, with a range of 1 to 5 hours.
  • A majority of nutrition teachers in this study stated that they did not feel that enough nutrition education was taught in their schools. However, several teachers said that increasing nutrition education in the classroom would not impact students' health unless the school nutrition environment reflected the information they taught.
  • Elementary schools were more likely than middle or high schools to provide nutrition education in the cafeteria. At the elementary level, this education included skits, demonstrations, and menu contests. In the middle and high schools using the cafeteria to teach about nutrition, this education included nutrition fairs and cooking demonstrations.

Chapter Six

  • In elementary schools included in this study, students received an average of 59 minutes of physical education per week or less than one-half the nationally recommended time. Middle school students received an average of 92 minutes per week, which is also less than one-half the recommended time, and high school students averaged 65 minutes per week, which is less than onethird of the physical education time recommended.
  • None of the schools included in this study met the physical activity recommendations put forth by Healthy People 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Association of Sports and Physical Education, the National Association of State Boards of Education, and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
  • Connecticut requires some physical education in schools, but neither the amount nor the consistency of the scheduling is prescribed. Even during years when physical education is included in the curriculum, students in 23 percent of the middle schools and 69 percent of the high schools included in this study can go for weeks or even months with no physical education whatsoever.
  • The majority of physical education teachers interviewed did not feel that the physical education requirements at their schools were adequate. However, they did feel that when physical education classes were held, they were usually successful in getting students to engage in at least 20 minutes of aerobic activity.
  • Providing recess, as well as intramural and interscholastic sports, can create opportunities for daily physical activity.
  • Creating after-school programs through partnerships with local groups, such as the town parks and recreation department or the YMCA, can be an effective strategy in helping students become more physically active

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