Schools Raise Nutrition Standards Without Hurting Bottom Line, Study Shows


Elementary school student with lunch tray; image courtesy of USDA/Bob NicholsSchools that restricted the sale of junk food and sugar-sweetened drinks saw their income from food sales drop and then rebound over time with sales of more nutritious fare, found researchers in a new study. Implementing stronger nutrition standards did not impact school districts in low-income areas harder than higher-income districts, the authors said.

The study examines the financial effects of schools restricting what food and drink is sold to students outside the federally funded school lunch program. Known as competitive foods and beverages, these items are sold in vending machines, cafeteria à la carte lines and school stores. The study presents case studies of eight school districts in four corners of the country that implemented strong nutrition standards for competitive food and beverages sold in middle and high schools without significant negative financial impact.

The study was published by the Illinois Public Health Institute in partnership with the Institute for Health Research and Policy.

Recent national research from the Bridging the Gap Research Program, a joint project of the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Michigan, indicates that many middle school and high school students can buy snack foods and drinks on their school campuses. Another recent Bridging the Gap report illustrated that competitive food standards were the weakest element in congressionally mandated district wellness policies.

In early February, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a proposed new rule for snack foods and beverages that would significantly reduce the fat, sugar and sodium content of foods sold to students by schools.

Some schools use revenue from competitive foods to support various programs, so some policymakers have expressed concern about stronger standards hurting schools’ bottom lines. This new study should help allay those fears, the researchers said.

The study, Controlling Junk Food and the Bottom Line: Case Studies of Schools Successfully Implementing Strong Nutrition Standards for Competitive Foods and Beverages, includes case studies based on interviews with school district food service staff, principals and other school staff in thirteen middle and high schools in nine school districts around the country. The districts were geographically and socio-economically diverse.

Key findings from the study include:

  • Loss of profit was not the most frequently cited concern about changing nutrition standards.
  • For the districts and schools in the study, “doing the right thing” was more important than profit.
  • Most respondents had a positive outlook on the future profitability of competitive foods.
  • Strengthening nutrition standards for competitive foods is associated with increased participation in the USDA reimbursable meal program.
  • Strong competitive food and beverage standards do not have a more adverse financial impact on low-income school districts compared to higher income districts.
  • Schools experienced declines in competitive food profits. However, schools report that over time, profits rebounded, and when measured across all food service accounts, profits remained the same or increased.

“What we found is that schools can minimize the financial impact of strengthening the nutrition standards for competitive foods, and that they see the benefits to student health and wellness as well worth the effort,” said Elissa Bassler, CEO of the Illinois Public Health Institute and one of the study’s lead authors.

The study also shares information about many of the strategies used by schools and districts to successfully implement the changes, as well as some of the barriers they experienced and overcame.

“The information about strategies and approaches described in this study should be extremely helpful over the next few years as districts and schools across the country begin to implement new standards issued by the USDA,” said Jamie Chriqui, senior research scientist at IHRP, who is the study’s other lead author.

Some of the strategies identified by the study participants include:

  • Strong leadership was a key to success.
  • Changes in policy, comparable to those coming from the USDA, were the impetus for change in most cases.
  • Engaging students and listening to their feedback was important.
  • Improving the regular school meal program at the same time that competitive food and beverages standards are changed helped with overall success.
  • Redesigning cafeterias to make them more appealing places to eat and relax was cited by some schools as important to success.
  • Schools encouraged staff to lead by example.
  • Conducting nutrition education in conjunction with changes in food and beverage offerings helped students adapt to new foods.

The researchers drew their sample of school districts from a dataset built by the Bridging the Gap research project, which conducts the largest ongoing, nationwide evaluation of wellness policies of school districts. Funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Bridging the Gap has compiled wellness policy data since 2006-07, when school districts were first mandated by Congress to keep wellness policies.

The study of the eight school districts was conducted during the 2011-12 school year. The project was initiated as a winner of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) 2nd Annual Innovations in Public Health Policy Competition, supported by a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Cooperative Agreement No. 3U38HM000520) to the National Network of Public Health Institutes.

This news release was adapted from the one issued by the Illinois Public Health Institute.