"This new information may be useful to school wellness councils as they work toward developing wellness policies as mandated by the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004 as well as structuring school environments to promote more healthful food choices by students," was how Dr. Claudia Probart, associate professor of nutritional sciences who led the study said.
The February issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association has the detailed version in a paper titled "Factors Associated With The Offering and Sale of Competitive Foods and School Lunch Participation."
The spear headers of the study are Probart; Elaine McDonnell, project coordinator; Dr. Terryl Hartman, associate professor of nutritional sciences; J. Elaine Weirich, project coordinator; and Lisa Bailey-Davis, director of operations, Pennsylvania Advocates for Nutrition and Activity, Penn State Harrisburg.
The study method employed was a survey that was sent to 271 of the public high schools in Pennsylvania and received 84 percent response.
Twenty-five percent of the foodservice directors reported that lunch periods are scheduled before 10:30 a.m. and this was found to predicted higher a la carte sales. A la Carte foods are those sold in addition to the federally-regulated meal program. These foods are primarily unregulated and may be of lower nutritional value.
"Students who have early lunch periods may purchase a la carte items to eat later in the day when they are likely to become hungry because they have eaten an early lunch. This seems to be a new finding and suggests that timing issues may be important considerations in encouraging the purchase of more nutritious food options," was how they explained the phenomenon.
The number of wending machines by cold drink companies was also a major cause. Income from soft drink incentives also appears to play a role in the nutrition environment, the study found. When there were more vending machines, there tended to be less participation in the hot lunch program.
Another factor affecting the school nutrition environment was parents and students getting fast food in the café which meant less of school meal programme. A major policy which stops and discourages this practice would help.
Putting it in the words of Probart, "It's important to pay attention to all of the factors facing students - not just whether federally-regulated meals are available -- in order to make it easy and desirable for kids to make healthy choices."