Study Finds Schools Statewide Are Selling Healthier Snack Options

The improvements are in compliance with 2012 school nutrition standards.

In 2012, Massachusetts passed a new set of school nutrition standards mandating which foods should be sold in public middle and high schools statewide. With no financial incentives and little technical assistance from the state, schools were asked to implement those guidelines within their own facilities—and most actually did.

Those are the results of a study led by Northeastern University psychology professor Jessica Hoffman. After examining the “competitive foods”—that is, foods that compete with school meal programs, like those sold from vending machines or school stores—available in 74 schools statewide, Hoffman and her team found that 69 percent of foods and 80 percent of beverages currently available meet state nutrition standards, which mostly seek to limit fat, sugar, and calories. Snacks that comply with the legislation include fruits and vegetables, low-fat milk, low-sugar fruit juices, and foods free of artificial sweeteners.

“I think there was an expectation from the state that schools would comply,” Hoffman says, “but I think also that there are hard-working people in food services and in school administrations and parent groups that wanted to have healthier options for students in school.”

Notably, area schools were largely able to stick to the guidelines despite the fact that Massachusetts’ are among the strictest in the nation. “First it’s important at a state level, because we’re able to show the ability of schools to implement these new standards in middle and high schools,” Hoffman says. “It’s also important at a national level, because we have data in Massachusetts that shows that schools can do the kind of things that schools around the country are now being asked to do.”

Though the trends around competitive foods are heartening, Hoffman’s study did not look at official school meal programs, which, despite improvements, have long been under attack for poor nutritional content. And though Hoffman says competitive foods and lunches are both important parts of the “food environment,” she acknowledges that serving up healthy meals in the cafeteria is not easy, and that many schools still have a ways to go.

“They are charged every day with feeding thousands of kids, millions of kids across the country, foods that are healthy, that fit within their budget, and that kids want to eat,” Hoffman says of food service workers. “It’s a really challenging task.”