STUDY: Strong School Nutrition Policies Linked to Healthier-Weight Kids

Our kids spend most of their waking life in school, so it makes sense that their school’s overall environment will affect their health — for better or worse. That’s why the Obama administration strengthened the federal rules governing schools’ written wellness policies, in hopes that these more robust requirements would help nudge schools in the right direction.

But at the end of the day, can a wellness policy really make much difference? And should these policies primarily focus on increasing students’ physical activity, or should they mostly aim to improve children’s school food environment? An important new study published this morning in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine has some answers.

Researchers from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut* and the Yale School of Public Health randomly selected twelve New Haven middle schools and followed their students for three years, from fifth to eighth grade. Each school was offered technical assistance and a stipend of $500 a year to support either: stronger nutrition policies; stronger policies to promote physical activity; both types of policies; or health policies unrelated to food and activity.

The results were quite significant. Kids in schools receiving the nutrition interventions showed a less-than-one-percent increase in their BMI scores over the three-year period, while students in schools that didn’t receive nutrition policy support showed a BMI increase of three to four percent. In addition, kids in the nutrition intervention schools reported consuming fewer sugar-sweetened beverages and unhealthy foods, and they were less likely to report having recently eaten fast food. 

Even more compelling: the magnitude of the effect on kids’ BMI increased over time, with the greatest difference found when they were in eighth grade. This latter finding lends even more support to a link between strong school nutrition policies and improved health.

So what were the specific school nutrition policies that apparently made such a difference? All of the schools in the study were required to meet federal school meal standards and none of their cafeterias sold competitive food (this a New Haven district-wide policy.) But in the nutrition intervention schools, these additional policies were enforced:

  • Schools will not use food or beverages as rewards for academic performance or good behavior.
  • Schools will not withhold food or beverages as punishment.
  • Schools should limit celebrations that involve food during the school day to no more than one party per class per month. Each party should include no more than one food or beverage that does not meet nutrition standards for food and beverages sold individually. The district will disseminate a list of healthy party ideas to parents and teachers.
  • Schools will provide nutrition education to foster lifelong habits of healthy eating. Nutrition education will also extend to the students’ homes via workshops for parents, materials given to students and directly sent to parent/guardians such a school menus and other bulletins.
  • Schools should engage students and parents, through taste tests of new entrées and surveys, in selecting foods sold through the school meal programs in order to identify new, healthful, and appealing food choices.

This groundbreaking study can serve as a roadmap for parents and school officials in crafting and implementing their own local school wellness policies. To that end, here’s an easily-shared infographic summarizing the study’s results:

[pdf-embedder url=”” title=”Infographic for Policy Intervention Study”]


* Blogger disclosure: I currently serve on the Rudd Center’s Advisory Board.

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