Improving nutrition in school competitive foods does not lead to long-term financial loss

A recent study by the Illinois Public Health Institute found that schools were able to improve the nutrition standards for their competitive foods and beverages without significant financial impact.

Competitive foods and drinks are items that are usually sold through vending machines, school stores and cafeteria a la carte lines and are not part of the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program. The USDA has proposed new nutrition standards for competitive foods that reduce the fat, sugar, and sodium content of foods that students can buy. Schools often use the profits from the sales of competitive foods to support various programs. Some schools have been concerned that stronger nutrition standards may cause loss of profits. Findings from the study show otherwise.

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 13 middle and high schools in 9 geographically and socio- economically diverse school districts around the US.

Key findings from the study include:

  • “Doing the right thing” was more important than concerns about profit from changing the nutrition standards.
  • Most participants had a positive outlook on the future profitability of competitive foods.
  • Strengthening nutrition standards for competitive foods was linked to increased participation in the USDA reimbursable meal program.
  • Strong competitive food and beverage standards did not have a more unfavorable financial impact on low-income school districts compared to higher-income districts.
  • Schools initially experienced dips in competitive food profits. Over about two years, profits rebounded, and when measured across all food service accounts and not just competitive foods, profits remained the same or increased. This was mainly due to more students participating in the school meal program.

Food service directors mentioned the most common strategies to overcoming barriers to implementing stronger nutrition standards and maintaining profits. These were communicating about new standards, marketing, education, adjusting food costs, modeling healthy behavior, and community engagement.

In particular, school districts and schools cited some strategies that addressed initial concerns:

  • Strong leadership was a key to success.
  • Changes in policy were often the impetus for change.
  • Engage students and listen to their feedback.
  • Improve the regular school meal program at the same time that competitive food and beverages standards were changed.
  • Redesign cafeterias to make them more appealing places to eat and relax.
  • Encourage staff to lead by example.
  • Conduct nutrition education along with changes in food and beverage offerings to help students adapt to new foods.

The study reported that by implementing strategies at the front end, schools and districts may be able to minimize financial disruption, facilitate student adaption, and improve nutrition by encouraging students to consume the healthier offerings.

The study was conducted during the 2011-12 school year, and was a winner of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) 2nd Annual Innovations in Public Health Policy Competition.

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