Schools and obesity prevention: creating school environments and policies to promote healthy eating and physical activity

Mary Story, Marilyn S Nanney, Marlene B Schwartz
Milbank Quarterly 2009, 87 (1): 71-100

CONTEXT: Research consistently shows that the majority of American children do not consume diets that meet the recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, nor do they achieve adequate levels of daily physical activity. As a result, more children are overweight today than at any other time in U.S. history. Schools offer many opportunities to develop strategies to prevent obesity by creating environments in which children eat healthfully and engage regularly in physical activity.

METHODS: This article discusses the role of schools in obesity prevention efforts. Current issues in schools' food and physical activity environments are examined, as well as federal, state, and local policies related to food and physical activity standards in schools. The article is organized around four key areas: (1) school food environments and policies, (2) school physical activity environments and policies, (3) school body mass index measurements, and (4) school wellness policies. Recommendations for accelerating change also are addressed.

FINDINGS: The article found that (1) competitive foods (foods sold outside of federally reimbursed school meals) are widely available in schools, especially secondary schools. Studies have related the availability of snacks and drinks sold in schools to students' high intake of total calories, soft drinks, total fat and saturated fat, and lower intake of fruits and vegetables; (2) physical activity can be added to the school curriculum without academic consequences and also can offer physical, emotional, and social benefits. Policy leadership has come predominantly from the districts, then the states, and, to a much lesser extent, the federal government; (3) few studies have examined the effectiveness or impact of school-based BMI measurement programs; and (4) early comparative analyses of local school wellness policies suggest that the strongest policies are found in larger school districts and districts with a greater number of students eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch.

CONCLUSIONS: Studies show that schools have been making some progress in improving the school food and physical activity environments but that much more work is needed. Stronger policies are needed to provide healthier meals to students at schools; limit their access to low-nutrient, energy-dense foods during the school day; and increase the frequency, intensity, and duration of physical activity at school.

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