(RxWiki News) Four times as many obese children are in the U.S. today as there were in the 1970s - but the availability of snacks at school besides school meals shows little signs of decreasing.
A national survey has revealed that half of all elementary school students in public and private schools can buy "competitive" food - snacks purchased from vending machines, in-school stores, snack bars, food carts, a la carte lines and similar sources.
"Teach your children to eat healthy choices."
Competitive food in schools essentially includes most items that students might buy outside of the official school nutrition program.
Lindsey Turner, PhD, and Frank Chaloupka, PhD, of the University of Illinois at Chicago, authored the study, which relied on surveys that parents mailed back from the 2006-2007 to the 2009-2010 school years.
The surveys came from 2,647 public schools and 1,205 private schools with, put together, includes a population that represents the nation's demographics.
Turner and Chaloupka found that about two-thirds of the students who had access to food outside of breakfast and lunch at school had the option of buying salads, fruits or vegetables.
Students in suburban and rural schools had the greatest access to these foods - over 50 percent - compared to rates about ten percent lower in urban schools.
Similarly, students at private schools had greater access to snack bars, candy and salty snacks than students at public schools had.
Among public schools, larger schools had more competitive food available than smaller schools did.
The researchers also found regional differences in food availability: the South outpaced other regions of the U.S. in offering salty and sweet products and places to buy competitive food in school generally.
Further, this study found that Southern public school students with access to competitive food also had more healthy options available to them than kids in the Midwest or West.
The South is also home to the highest rates of childhood obesity, but the data in this study does not support conclusions about the relationship between obesity rates and school food availability.
In fact, a study released last month found that vending machine access in junior highs did not affect the obesity rates among students.
Turner and Chaloupka mention in their study that a 2007 Institute of Medicine report recommended that schools limit access to foods beyond the school meal programs.
Any food that is offered should include fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products, according to the IOM recommendations.
The authors write that even though lower-fat options are among students' options in these schools, they can also buy foods full of fat, sugar and salt.
"Continued efforts are needed to ensure that all competitive food products in elementary schools are in compliance with Institute of Medicine guidelines and to focus not only on removing unhealthy foods but also on assuring that all students with access to competitive foods can purchase healthy items," they wrote.
The report was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and appears in the February issue of JAMA's Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.
The authors reported no financial conflicts of interest.