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Journal Issue: Childhood Obesity Volume 16 Number 1 Spring 2006

The Role of Schools in Obesity Prevention
Mary Story Karen M. Kaphingst Simone French

State and Local School Nutrition and Physical Activity Policies

While in many respects inadequate themselves, especially regarding competitive foods, USDA nutrition regulations permit state agencies and local school food authorities to impose additional restrictions on all food and beverage sales at any time in schools participating in the federal school meal programs. In recent years, many states, local school districts, and individual schools have taken up the challenge. States are also becoming more active in promoting physical activity.

Twenty-three states have adopted additional restrictions, including policies that limit the times or types of competitive foods available for sale in vending machines, cafeterias, and school stores and snack bars.131  Most states restrict access to competitive foods when school meals are being served. Five restrict access all day long.132  During the first six months of 2005, forty states introduced some 200 bills that provide nutritional guidance for schools. Eleven states—Arizona, California, Hawaii, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, New Mexico, South Carolina, Texas, and West Virginia—mandated nutritional standards for competitive foods.133  See the legislative activity box for highlights of nutritionand physical activity–related legislation enacted during the first half of 2005.

Several school districts have also taken action. More than half of the nation's ten largest school districts restrict competitive foods beyond federal and state regulations. The New York City Public School District, the nation's largest, eliminated candy, soda, and other snack foods from all vending machines starting in fall 2003. Vending machines on school grounds can sell only water, low-fat snacks, and 100 percent fruit juices.134  The Los Angeles Unified School District passed a soda vending ban that went into effect in January 2004. A further ban on fried chips, candy, and other snack foods in school vending machines and stores went into effect in July 2004.135  The Chicago public schools announced in 2004 a plan to ban soft drinks, candy, and high-fat snacks from school vending machines and to replace them with more healthful offerings. The Philadelphia School District recently passed a comprehensive school nutrition policy that includes nutrition education, guidelines for all foods and beverages sold in schools, family and community involvement, and program evaluation.

A 2005 report surveyed principals and found that 60 percent of schools in the 2003–04 school year had written policies in place that restricted competitive foods accessible to students, and most often school districts developed and enacted the policies. A recent study examined associations between high school students' lunch patterns and vending machine purchases and the schools' food environment and policies.136  In schools with established policies, students reported making fewer snack food purchases than students in schools without policies. Students at schools with open-campus policies during lunchtime were significantly more likely to eat lunch at a fast-food restaurant than students at schools with closed-campus policies. These findings suggest that school food policies that decrease access to foods high in fats and sugars are associated with less frequent consumption of these items during the school day.

The Trust for America's Health recently examined state statutes and administrative codes for physical activity policies.137  Only two states, South Dakota and Oklahoma, have no PE requirement for elementary and secondary schools. Twenty-seven states require PE in elementary, middle, and high school. Two states, Arizona and Mississippi, have no PE requirement for high school, and twenty-seven require only one-half credit or one credit of PE for graduation. Illinois is the only state that requires daily PE in every grade, although its duration is not specified. State requirements, however, are often not enforced. Amidst many other mandated curriculum requirements and tight school budgets, PE is often viewed as a low priority.138

Moreover, the SHPPS 2000 nationwide survey found that 17 percent of elementary schools, 25 percent of middle and junior high schools, and 40 percent of high schools exempt from required PE courses those students who participate in community or school sports or in other school activities or who have high physical competency test scores.139  And few states and districts require skill performance tests, fitness tests, or written knowledge tests.

Recent legislative activity, however, as seen in thelegislative activity box, demonstrates promising attention to this area of children's development. Several states are encouraging, not mandating, state and local education officials to enhance PE and physical activity in schools. During the first half of 2005, six states—North Dakota, Montana, Utah, Colorado, Tennessee, and Washington—adopted such resolutions.140  In April 2005, the North Carolina State Board of Education voted to require thirty minutes of daily physical activity for all students in grades K–8 beginning in the 2006–07 school year.