Children continue to have easy access at school to sugary sodas and flavored milk, according to a study published Monday in the online Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.
The national study by the University of Illinois at Chicago was based on surveys mailed to a representative sample of elementary school administrators over three academic years, from 2008 through 2009.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture National School Lunch Program, which served meals to more than 31 million students in 2008, does not allow sweetened beverages, but students often buy drinks from vending machines, school stores or lunch room snack bars.
There have been widespread efforts to remove these so-called “competitive beverages” from schools, and the Institute of Medicine has called for competitive beverages in elementary schools to be limited to water, 100 percent juice and nonfat or 1 percent flavored or unflavored milk.
The University of Illinois study found that in the 2008-09 school year, 16.1 percent of elementary school students only had access to those healthier sorts of beverages, up from just 10 percent two years earlier. And public school students’ access to higher-fat milk (defined as 2 percent or whole milk) at lunchtime decreased from 77.9 percent in 2006-07 to 68.3 percent in 2008-09.
Nevertheless, the researchers said flavored milk was available at lunch on most days for 92.1 percent of public elementary school students.
And overall, the study found that elementary school students access to high-calorie, sweet beverages for sale in any lunch-program competing venue (vending machines, stores, or a la carte snack bars) increased from 49 percent in 2006-07 to 61.3 percent two years later.
The study authors conclude that much remains to be done to reduce the availability of unhealthy beverages in elementary schools and suggest that policy makers, school officials and parents continue to work together to address the issue.