Healthier Schools & Latino Kids Research: School Food Policies


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

Latino schools tend to have less effective food policies

While most school districts have a policy that addresses competitive foods, results from several studies suggest that the policies at schools with more Latino students are generally less effective and many schools have not implemented them.32–34

For instance, a longitudinal analysis conducted between 2001 and 2008 examined the BMI of 6,300 racially and socioeconomically diverse students from 40 states that set standards for competitive foods.33

Law strength and consistency were identified as two key factors affecting the law’s positive influence on student BMI.

States with a relatively high proportion of Latino students were more likely to have weak laws in 2003—laws that contained weak language or nonspecific standards—and, in turn, were less likely to have a positive impact on BMI than states with strong laws in 2003.33

A cross-sectional study conducted by the same author and using student data from the same cohort found that students reported lower in-school SSB access and purchasing only when schools restrict all SSBs.

Policies that restrict only soda, but allow sports drinks and other SSBs, had no impact on SSBs access or purchasing. According to this study, states with weaker policies that restrict only soda had higher proportions of Latino students (33%) than states that restrict all SSBs (11% Latino).34

The Healthy Schools Program of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation provides support for schools making a variety of healthy changes, including providing healthier competitive foods.

Based on survey data collected from a nationally representative sample of elementary schools between 2006 and 2010, awareness of the Alliance’s food and beverage guidelines among school administrators significantly increased, and nearly one-third of the schools that sold competitive foods had implemented or were in the process of implementing the guidelines.

However, schools with a majority of Latino students were less likely to implement the beverage guidelines.32

Policies regarding sugary drink consumption, marketing

A study that examined the degree of penetration by soft drink bottlers into schools found that the majority of high-school students had soft drinks available to them in school vending machines (88%) and in the school cafeteria (59%); and that most students in middle and high school were in schools that had a contract with a bottler, although related revenues to schools are quite modest

The study also found that Latino youth were most likely to have soft drinks available to them throughout the day, and the socio-economic status of the students correlated negatively with whether advertising and promotion of soft drinks was allowed by their school.35

These concerns may be mitigated as the USDA “Smart Snacks” initiative is extended to set standards for food and beverage marketing in schools. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 requires the USDA to establish nutrition standards for all foods sold in schools, beyond the foods available through the federally supported school meals program.36

More recently, the USDA proposed an additional regulation to ensure that any food or beverage marketing in schools be consistent with nutrition standards for Smart Snacks under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.7

Stronger food policies = Latinos consume less unhealthy foods

Policies that reduce access to competitive foods in schools are likely to reduce Latino students’ consumption of unhealthy foods and drinks during the school day, potentially lowering their intake of empty calories.

However, such policies do not necessarily improve students’ overall nutrient intake.

Two studies directly assessed the impact of California’s statewide policies, effective since 2007, which established strict nutrition standards for competitive foods sold in schools.37,38 Approximately one-third of the California population is Latino.

The first study measured pre- and post-legislation food and beverage availability, sales, and student consumption at 99 California schools. Overall, the study found that, after legislation: the availability of foods and beverages compliant with the standards increased; the availability of noncompliant items (e.g., SSBs, chips, candy) decreased; and, as measured by student survey responses, at-school consumption of some noncompliant foods dropped, while at-home consumption of selected noncompliant foods remained stable. This study did not include a Latino-only analysis.38

However, a study of an ethnically diverse subpopulation of majority-Latino (65%) seventh- and ninth-graders across several schools noted a significant post-legislation decrease in the consumption of both soda and vegetables (not including French fries) at school, and significantly more students reported drinking water at school.

While the regulation of competitive foods improved school environments, observed improvements in student nutritional intake were limited, likely because, while snacks that meet the new nutrition standards are lower in fat and sugar, they are not always more nutritionally dense. The authors suggested that decreased consumption of certain healthy foods, such as the reported decline in vegetable consumption, may indicate that schools are focused on complying with nutrition standards rather than providing fresh, healthy options that are appealing to students.38

A 2012 study by Taber et al. used 24-hour recall data to analyze the nutrient intake of 680 high-school students and found that a majority-Latino (77%) population of California students consumed less fat and sugar, and an average of 158 fewer calories per day than students in 14 other states (in which 15% of students were Latino) that did not regulate competitive food nutrition content. These results remained consistent when the researchers restricted the analysis to only Latino students.37

Another study involving a large, diverse population of public high-school students in Boston, where 39 percent of the study body is Latino, was the first to evaluate whether policies banning SSBs in schools would change adolescents’ overall consumption of SSBs.

Based on a total of 2,033 survey responses from 2004 and 2006, Boston high-school students reported a significant decrease in daily consumption of SSBs both in-school and out-of-school, from 1.71 servings in 2004 to 1.38 servings in 2006, equating to a reduction of 45 kcal per day.

By comparison, national results, including approximately 12 percent Mexican-American adolescents, indicated no significant change in adolescent consumption of SSBs during the same timeframe. Despite the lack of a Latino-only analysis, these findings support the trend that implementing policies that restrict the sale of SSBs in schools may be a promising strategy to reduce Latino adolescents’ intake of unnecessary calories.39,40

A retrospective study of data from the Monitoring the Future and Youth, Education, and Society studies aimed to determine how many middle- and high-school students attended schools with competitive food standards in place, whether these standards were linked to overweight and obesity, and whether individual standards could be linked to higher rates of overweight/obesity within specific sociodemographic groups.

The study included 8th, 10th, and 12th grade students from the 2008-2009 school year to the 2011-2012 school year; these students attended schools with one or more of five nutritional standards in place.

These standards included no SSBs, no whole milk or 2% milk, no candy or full-fat snacks, and no french fries (all of which are required under USDA standards), as well as policies to ensure the availability of fruits and vegetables (which is recommended but not required).

The study found that, for Latino middle school students, the lack of SSBs in schools was associated with significantly reduced odds of overweight/obesity in both Latino-only models and models including White/no SSB interactions.

Interestingly, this effect did not hold for White middle school students, thus supporting a disproportionate influence of access to SSBs on the BMI of Latino students.41

Strong food policies = potential weight improvements in Latino students

Several cross-sectional studies have suggested that strong and comprehensive competitive food policies that are consistently enforced across grade levels and across venues may reduce overweight and obesity trends among Latino children and adolescents.4,33,42,43

According to these studies, “strong” policies are those that include language requiring competitive foods to meet specific nutrition standards, rather than including recommended standards or references to “healthy” foods, and “comprehensive” policies are those that include not only changes to food items offered, but also address other areas such as fundraisers, nutrition education, and physical activity.

A California-based study identified a potential correlation between strong policies limiting access to competitive foods and improvements in overall overweight trends among student populations with a high proportion of Latino children and adolescents.

In the period before competitive food policies took effect (2001-2004), the childhood overweight rate was increasing, but after the policies took effect (2005-2008), the trend stabilized.

After the policies took effect, significant population-level improvements in overweight trends were observed among fifth graders in the Los Angeles Unified School District (78% Latino) and fifth-grade boys and seventh graders in the rest of California (48% Latino).

This study included more than 5 million observations over an 8-year period using a majority-Latino population of middle-school students. The analysis was restricted to fifth- and seventh-grade students attending public school for whom annual physical fitness data, including height and weight measurements, had been recorded.

According to the authors, the competitive food policies implemented in 2004 in California, and Los Angeles in particular, are among “the most rigorous and comprehensive” of such policies in the nation. However, due to study limitations, such as lack of randomization, the extent to which the new nutritional policies contributed to the change in BMI was unclear.42

Another study attempted to determine whether student overweight/obesity was affected by state competitive food laws.

The authors used the Classification of Laws Associated with School Students (CLASS) database to stratify schools into those with strong, weak, or no competitive food laws; student demographic and characteristic information was culled from the 2007 National Survey of Children’s Health for over 16,000 children ages 11-14.

In 2005, 31 states did not have any state laws regulating competitive food and beverage in middle schools; of the remaining states, 11 were found to have weak competitive food laws, and 9 had strong laws.

Results showed that children in states with weak competitive food laws had over 20% higher odds of being overweight/obese than those living in states with no laws or strong laws.

The authors suggested that the smaller sample size for strong-law states may have contributed to these findings; they also noted that the effects of these laws are not immediate, and more time may be required before any effects are exacted.

The study controlled for characteristics associated with childhood overweight/obesity, including being younger, being black or Latino, not coming from a two-parent family, and living in a poor household.43

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

References for this section »

(32) Ohri-Vachaspati, P.; Turner, L.; Chaloupka, F. J. Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Competitive Beverage and Food Guidelines: Do Elementary School Administrators Know about Them and Do They Report Implementing Them? J. Sch. Health 2012, 82 (10), 469–477.

(33) Taber, D. R.; Chriqui, J. F.; Chaloupka, F. J. Differences in Nutrient Intake Associated with State Laws Regarding Fat, Sugar, and Caloric Content of Competitive Foods. Arch. Pediatr. Adolesc. Med. 2012, 166 (5), 452–458.

(34) Taber, D. R.; Chriqui, J. F.; Perna, F. M.; Powell, L. M.; Chaloupka, F. J. Weight Status Among Adolescents in States That Govern Competitive Food Nutrition Content. Pediatrics 2012, 130 (3), 437–444.

(35) Johnston, L. D.; Delva, J.; O’Malley, P. M. Soft Drink Availability, Contracts, and Revenues in American Secondary Schools. Am. J. Prev. Med. 2007, 33 (4 Suppl), S209–S225.

(36) USDA Food and Nutrition Service. USDA Proposes Standards to Provide Healthy Food Options in Schools: New “Smart Snacks in School” proposal to ensure vending machines, snack bars include healthy choices. Available at: (Accessed Nov 19, 2015)

(37) Taber, D. R.; Chriqui, J. F.; Powell, L. M.; Chaloupka, F. J. Banning All Sugar-Sweetened Beverages in Middle Schools: Reduction of In-School Access and Purchasing but Not Overall Consumption. Arch. Pediatr. Adolesc. Med. 2012, 166 (3), 256–262.

(38) Woodward-Lopez, G.; Gosliner, W.; Samuels, S. E.; Craypo, L.; Kao, J.; Crawford, P. B. Lessons Learned from Evaluations of California’s Statewide School Nutrition Standards. Am. J. Public Health 2010, 100 (11), 2137–2145.

(39) Cradock, A. L.; McHugh, A.; Mont-Ferguson, H.; Grant, L.; Barrett, J. L.; Wang, Y. C.; Gortmaker, S. L. Effect of School District Policy Change on Consumption of Sugar-Sweetened Beverages among High School Students, Boston, Massachusetts, 2004-2006. Prev. Chronic Dis. 2011, 8 (4), A74.

(40) American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on School Health. Policy Statement: Soft Drinks in Schools. 2004, 113 ((1 Pt 1)), 152–154.

(41) Terry-McElrath, Y. M.; O’Malley, P. M.; Johnston, L. D. Potential Impact of National School Nutritional Environment Policies: Cross-Sectional Associations with US Secondary Student Overweight/obesity, 2008-2012. JAMA Pediatr. 2015, 169 (1), 78–85.

(42) Sanchez-Vaznaugh, E. V; Sanchez, B. N.; Baek, J.; Crawford, P. B.; Sánchez, B. N. “Competitive” Food and Beverage Policies: Are They Influencing Childhood Overweight Trends? Health Aff. (Millwood). 2010, 29 (3), 436–446.

(43) Hennessy, E.; Oh, A.; Agurs-Collins, T.; Chriqui, J. F.; Mâsse, L. C.; Moser, R. P.; Perna, F. State-Level School Competitive Food and Beverage Laws Are Associated with Children’s Weight Status. J. Sch. Health 2014, 84 (9), 609–616.

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