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Massachusetts schools improving food options for students

Recent standards have been implemented in many schools, and provide students with healthier competitive foods

Photo © Oksana Kuzmina - Fotolia
Obesity trends in children have been on the rise in recent years. Some states have very loose laws when it comes to what they serve their children in school lunchrooms, but others are adopting more rigid standards to try and provide healthy options for students. Massachusetts is an example of the latter, and after a year of implementation many schools are getting on board.

Food standards within schools have been a tricky subject, since they are subject to change depending on what part of the country you live in. While some states have good standards set in place for school lunches, they may not be up to par on their standards for competitive foods, which are the types of snacks and drinks that may be offered in vending machines, school stores, or at fundraising events.

New standards

In 2012, Massachusetts implemented new standards in their schools in order to ensure that competitive foods were healthier. At the time, many schools were not performing up to the new standards: only 13 percent of competitive middle schools and 28 percent of high schools were already compliant with the new legislation.

Many people were unsure about how Massachusetts’ schools would react to the changes. Completely adapting to new food standards is bound to take some time, and many schools and students may have been against the change, due to matters such as cost, taste, effort, etc. Jessica Hoffman, who is an associate professor in the Department of Applied Psychology at Northeastern University, decided to conduct a study to see how many schools were able to adapt.

Hoffman and her team visited 74 middle schools and high schools in 37 Massachusetts school districts over an 18-month period. They collected data on the competitive foods that were being offered after the legislative changes, including brand names, packaging, and serving size.

Surprising turnaround

The researchers found that the new legislation was adapted very quickly in Massachusetts schools. After just one year, middle schools that complied with the new standards jumped from 13 percent to 69 percent. High schools showed an even more drastic improvement, jumping from 28 percent to 80 percent. This turnaround was completely unexpected due to the strictness of the new standards. Hoffman went so far as to say that they were “some of the strictest standards in the whole country”.

So why did this change come so quickly? Is it that easy for schools to change their nutritional strategies to make things healthier? Apparently so. Hoffman notes that changes to beverages made a big impact in schools.

“It’s easier to make the changes in beverages because categorically things are compliant or not compliant… For example, the sugar-sweetened beverages are easy to recognize and eliminate,” she said. The new state regulations also mandated that only non-fat or low-fat milk could be served, and that fruits and vegetables must be offered wherever food products were sold. This gives students a healthy option to turn to wherever they decide to eat.

The researchers stress that other states would do well to learn from the new standards that Massachusetts has implemented. Doing so might go a long way toward curbing obesity trends in the country. The full study has been published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

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