Healthier Schools & Latino Kids Research: School Food Environment


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This is part of our Healthier Schools & Latino Kids: A Research Review »

Latino students access to unhealthy competitive foods at school

Two national studies suggest ethnic disparities regarding access to specific types of competitive food venues.

The first study, using data collected in spring 2005 as part of the third School Nutrition and Dietary Assessment (SNDA III), included a nationally representative sample of 395 U.S. public schools and found that Latino high-school students had greater access to brand-name fast foods in schools than their black or White peers.20 This same study found no differences in access to healthy foods based on student ethnicity or socioeconomic status.

The second study, an updated report of the National Secondary School Survey, a comprehensive study including a nationally representative sample of more than 700 public schools, found that in 2010, Latino middle-school students had significantly greater access to school stores or snack bars/carts than White or black students.5

These two studies support other data showing that Latino students have greater access to certain competitive food venues, such as à la carte lunch items, and as a result, less access to healthier options.4

Latino students likely to buy, consume unhealthy competitive foods

Two cross-sectional studies showed that Latino students were at least twice as likely as non-Hispanic White students to purchase from a vending machine selling sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) and snacks, when available.21,22

While the link between vending machine use among middle-school students and increased SSB consumption had previously been established,23 these studies contribute to the body of evidence that unrestricted access to vending machines may influence purchasing behaviors and dietary practices of Latino students.

According to Thompson et al.22, most non-Latino Whites did not purchase a food or drink from a vending machine, while most students of other races or ethnicities reported purchasing from a vending machine on one or more days during the week. These results are based on cross-sectional, nationally representative, population-level YouthStyles 2005 survey data (collected July-August 2005) that included 869 public school children and adolescents who had access to a school vending machine, of which 20.5 percent were grouped as “Hispanic or other” ethnicity.

Specifically, compared to non-Latino Whites, participants who were “Hispanic or other” were twice as likely to purchase sodas or other snack food such as chips, chocolate bars, or cookies from a vending machine 1 or more days per week.

Respondents who reported frequent vending machine purchases were also more likely to have unrestricted access to vending machines and to report additional unhealthy dietary practices, such as consuming soda on a regular basis and purchasing pizza or fried food from the cafeteria 1 or more days per week.22

A cross-sectional analysis by Park et al. was based on the 2003 Florida Youth Physical Activity and Nutrition Survey that included a statewide representative sample of 4,322 students from 73 Florida public middle schools, of which 21 percent were Latino.

This study found that, compared to non-Latino White students, when vending machines were available, Latino students were 2.2 times more likely to buy snacks or beverages from vending machines 2 or more days during the previous 5 days instead of buying lunch. The most commonly purchased vending machine items were chips, pretzels/crackers, candy bars, soda, and sport drinks.

This likelihood was even higher among Latino students who reported smoking cigarettes 1 or more days in the past 30 days.

The primary factor influencing purchasing behavior was the presence of beverage vending machines on school property—students attending schools with beverage vending machines were 3.5 times more likely to buy snacks and beverages for lunch.

Additionally, among Latino students who purchased lunch from vending machines, 72 percent reported buying both less-healthy snack and beverage options.21

Two other studies support and extend these findings relating increased competitive food purchasing to poor dietary behaviors observed among Latino students.

According to a cross-sectional study including a nationally representative sample of 287 public schools and 2,314 children and adolescents (22% Latino) in grades 1-12 from SNDA III, Latino high school students consumed 47 calories more during the school day from low-nutrient, energy-dense foods than their non-Latino White peers, independent of household income. Authors indicate that reducing access to unhealthy competitive foods could specifically help Latino youth groups at high risk of obesity.24

Additionally, a state-level study including a majority-Latino (60%) population of 5,365 seventh- and ninth-graders at 19 schools in multiethnic, low-income California communities found that students consumed more unhealthy foods at school and also purchased and consumed unhealthy competitive food items if available, independent of whether they participated in the school lunch program.

The authors concluded that, in general, students consider it important to be able to purchase healthy foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, at school, but do not perceive their school food environment to be healthy and consume more unhealthy foods at school.25

Latinos schools are surrounded by an unhealthy food environment

Studies have previously demonstrated that the availability of unhealthy food venues near schools is associated with higher rates of childhood overweight.26,27

In an analysis of 100,000 students who participated in the California Healthy Kids Survey, researchers found that when school proximity to fast-food restaurants increased, so did both Latino and black students’ BMI.

The study results also indicated an association between BMI and the proximity of fast-food outlets to schools among Latino students attending lower-income schools, regardless of whether the schools were urban or nonurban.

To illustrate the significance of these results, the authors compared the effects of the distance between schools and fast-food outlets on BMI to the effects of exercise on BMI, and found that, for Latino students, the presence of a fast-food restaurant one mile nearer to school may negate the positive effects of as many as three days of exercise per week.28

For instance, a national study including all (31,622) U.S. public middle and high schools found that Latino students were more likely to attend schools whose surrounding food environments included convenience stores, fast-food restaurants, snack stores or liquor stores. The authors concluded that this easy access to snacks, sodas, and fast food in the immediate vicinity of a school could negate positive school food policies, especially among students who can leave campus.29

In exploring the competitive food environment in proximity to schools attended by Latino students, Tester and colleagues (2010) found mobile food vendors to be highly prevalent in the predominantly Latino community of Oakland, Calif.

An average of five vendors were within a quarter-mile walk of each of the six schools on any given observation period. Over half of the transactions were performed by children only, and the majority of these purchases were at ice cream trucks or paleteros (ice cream pushcart vendors).30

A qualitative case study of students at a diverse California middle school identified several factors that influence students’ unhealthy food choices.

The selected school belonged to a district with a strong competitive food policy that banned the sale of sodas and junk food in schools, though the school was located in close proximity to fast food restaurants and convenience stores.

In the study, the middle school held a “Detox Month,” during which teachers and administrators encouraged students to replace junk food with more healthful options, such as water, fruits, and vegetables.

Latino, black, and Asian-American students responded to questions before, during, and after Detox Month, allowing the researchers insight into why students make certain food choices. Many of the students complained about the school lunch and skipped it altogether, leaving them hungry in the afternoon.

Corner stores near the school offered inexpensive, convenient, and largely unhealthy food options for hungry students walking home from school.

“Hot chips” were a particularly tempting food option, as students described them as cheap and “addicting,” and indicated a peer-related influence, as they found hot chips more difficult to resist when they saw friends and classmates eating them. This peer influence, however, was also noted to have a temporarily positive effect during Detox Month, when teachers noticed students encouraging one another to avoid junk foods and beverages.31

Among all elementary school students, students consumed more calories per school day from low-nutrient, energy-dense food items even in schools without vending machines and snack bars, suggesting that elementary school children bring these items from home.

The study authors did not report any association between ethnicity and SSB/unhealthy snack consumption among elementary school students.24

More from our Healthier Schools & Latino Kids: A Research Review »

References for this section »

(20) Finkelstein, D. M.; Hill, E. L.; Whitaker, R. C. School Food Environments and Policies in US Public Schools. Pediatrics 2008, 122 (1), e251–e259.

(21) Park, S.; Sappenfield, W. M.; Huang, Y.; Sherry, B.; Bensyl, D. M. The Impact of the Availability of School Vending Machines on Eating Behavior during Lunch: The Youth Physical Activity and Nutrition Survey. J. Am. Diet. Assoc. 2010, 110 (10), 1532–1536.

(22) Thompson, O. M.; Yaroch, A. L.; Moser, R. P.; Finney Rutten, L. J.; Agurs-Collins, T. School Vending Machine Purchasing Behavior: Results from the 2005 Youthstyles Survey. J. Sch. Health 2010, 80 (5), 225–232.

(23) Berkey, C. S.; Rockett, H. R. H.; Field, A. E.; Gillman, M. W.; Colditz, G. a. Sugar-Added Beverages and Adolescent Weight Change. Obes. Res. 2004, 12 (5), 778–788.

(24) Briefel, R. R.; Crepinsek, M. K.; Cabili, C.; Wilson, A.; Gleason, P. M. School Food Environments and Practices Affect Dietary Behaviors of US Public School Children. J. Am. Diet. Assoc. 2009, 109 (2), S91–S107.

(25) Gosliner, W.; Madsen, K. a.; Woodward-Lopez, G.; Crawford, P. B. Would Students Prefer to Eat Healthier Foods at School? J. Sch. Health 2011, 81 (3), 146–151.

(26) Davis, B.; Carpenter, C. Proximity of Fast-Food Restaurants to Schools and Adolescent Obesity. Am. J. Public Health 2009, 99 (3), 505–510.

(27) Powell, L. M.; Auld, M. C.; Chaloupka, F. J.; O’Malley, P. M.; Johnston, L. D. Associations Between Access to Food Stores and Adolescent Body Mass Index. Am. J. Prev. Med. 2007, 33 (4S), 301–307.

(28) Grier, S.; Davis, B. Are All Proximity Effects Created Equal? Fast Food Near Schools and Body Weight Among Diverse Adolescents. J. Public Policy Mark. 2013, 32 (1), 116–128.

(29) Sturm, R. Disparities in the Food Environment Surrounding US Middle and High Schools. Public Health 2008, 122 (7), 681–690.

(30) Tester, J. M.; Yen, I. H.; Laraia, B. Mobile Food Vending and the after-School Food Environment. Am. J. Prev. Med. 2010, 38 (1), 70–73.

(31) Jara, E.; Ozer, E. J.; Seyer-Ochi, I. A Case Study of Middle School Food Policy and Persisting Barriers to Healthful Eating. Ecol. Food Nutr. 2014, 53 (3), 333–346.

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