OBJECTIVE. The purpose of this study was to describe school food environments and policies in US public schools and how they vary according to school characteristics.
METHODS. We analyzed cross-sectional data from the third School Nutrition and Dietary Assessment study by using a nationally representative sample of 395 US public schools in 129 school districts in 38 states. These 2005 data included school reports of foods and beverages offered in the National School Lunch Program and on-site observations, in a subsample of schools, of competitive foods and beverages (those sold in vending machines and a la carte and that are not part of the National School Lunch Program). Seventeen factors were used to characterize school lunches, competitive foods, and other food-related policies and practices. These factors were used to compute the food environment summary score (0 [least healthy] to 17 [most healthy]) of each school.
RESULTS. There were vending machines in 17%, 82%, and 97% of elementary, middle, and high schools, respectively, and a la carte items were sold in 71%, 92%, and 93% of schools, respectively. Among secondary schools with vending and a la carte sales, these sources were free of low-nutrient energy-dense foods or beverages in 15% and 21% of middle and high schools, respectively. The food environment summary score was significantly higher (healthier) in the lower grade levels. The summary score was not associated with the percentage of students that was certified for free or reduced-price lunches or the percentage of students that was a racial/ethnic minority.
CONCLUSIONS. As children move to higher grade levels, their school food environments become less healthy. The great majority of US secondary schools sell items a la carte in the cafeteria and through vending machines, and these 2 sources often contain low-nutrient, energy-dense foods and beverages, commonly referred to as junk food.