From Green Right Now Reports

Researchers looking for a link between the availability of junk food at school and high obesity rates among 5th and 8th graders, could not find evidence that the children were influenced by the wealth of chips, candy and soda sold at school.

Pretzels, a healthier snack.

“We were really surprised by that result and, in fact, we held back from publishing our study for roughly two years because we kept looking for a connection that just wasn’t there,” said Jennifer Van Hook, a Professor of Sociology and Demography at Pennsylvania State University and lead author of the study, which appears in the January issue of Sociology of Education.

“There has been a great deal of focus in the media on how schools make a lot of money from the sale of junk food to students, and on how schools have the ability to help reduce childhood obesity,” Van Hook said. “In that light, we expected to find a definitive connection between the sale of junk food in middle schools and weight gain among children between fifth and eighth grades. But, our study suggests that—when it comes to weight issues—we need to be looking far beyond schools and, more specifically, junk food sales in schools, to make a difference.”

The study suggests that eating patterns are formed much earlier, in the home, and that policymakers should focus their attention on younger kids.

“…many children develop eating habits and tastes for certain types of foods when they are of preschool age, and that those habits and tastes may stay with them for their whole lives,” Van Hook said. “So, their middle school environments might not matter a lot.”

The study sample used children participating in the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 1998-99, which followed kids from kindergarten through 8th grade. Van Hook and her co-author Claire E. Altman, a sociology doctoral student at Pennsylvania State University, reviewed the 5th and 8th grade years for 19,450 children from that study.

“Schools only represent a small portion of children’s food environment,” Van Hook said. “They can get food at home, they can get food in their neighborhoods, and they can go across the street from the school to buy food. Additionally, kids are actually very busy at school. When they’re not in class, they have to get from one class to another and they have certain fixed times when they can eat. So, there really isn’t a lot of opportunity for children to eat while they’re in school, or at least eat endlessly, compared to when they’re at home. As a result, whether or not junk food is available to them at school may not have much bearing on how much junk food they eat.”

Regardless of whether schools are setting or simply enabling dietary patterns, many groups would argue that junk food in schools still needs to go because it displaces healthier options.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a longtime champion of healthier school lunches and snacks, argues that schools need to offer healthy fruits, vegetables and whole grains. The CSPI has compiled a long list of healthy snack ideas to help schools and parents get away from high-fat, non-nutritive snacks.

The CSPI list suggests raw fruits, fruit leathers, applesauce, frozen fruit, fruit smoothies, raw veggies with dressing dip, rice cakes, baked tortilla chips, granola bars and pretzels are better options than many packaged, sugary, fatty snacks.