Healthier school snacks may help kids make healthier choices

November 19, 2013

A study published in Childhood Obesity shows that schools who offer healthier snacks in vending machines and a la carte lines may improve students’ diets. This is encouraging news for schools and school nutrition professionals as they begin implementing the Smart Snacks in School standards, which will ensure that students are offered healthier food options during the school day. Smart Snacks in School requires more whole grains, low fat dairy, fruits, vegetables, and leaner protein, while still leaving plenty of room for tradition, like homemade birthday treats and bake sale fundraisers.

The School Nutrition Advances Kids project tested the effectiveness of school-initiated and state-recommended school nutrition practice and policy changes on student dietary intake in low-income middle schools. For the study, schools recruited by an application for grant funding were randomly assigned to (1) complete an assessment of nutrition education, policies, and environments using the Healthy School Action Tools (HSAT) and implement an action plan, (2) complete the HSAT, implement an action plan, and convene a student nutrition action team, (3) complete the HSAT and implement an action plan and a Michigan State Board of Education nutrition policy in their cafeteria a la carte, or (4) a control group.

All intervention schools were provided with funding and assistance to make self-selected nutrition practice, policy, or education changes. Block Youth Food Frequency Questionnaires were completed by 1,176 seventh-grade students from 55 schools at baseline and during eighth-grade follow-up. Nutrient density and food group changes for the intervention groups were compared to the control group, controlling for baseline dietary intake values, gender, race/ethnicity, school kitchen type, urbanization, and percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price meals. Analyses were conducted by randomization and based on changes the schools self-selected.

The researchers found improvements in students’ nutrient density and food group intake when schools implemented at least three new nutrition practice changes and established at least three new nutrition policies. Students in schools that introduced mostly healthful foods in competitive venues at lunch demonstrated the most dietary improvements.

The researchers concluded that “new USDA nutrition standards for a la carte and vending will likely increase the healthfulness of middle school children’s diets.”

Study (pdf)