FRIDAY, Dec. 19, 2008 (HealthDay News) -- Restricting the availability of unhealthy snacks in elementary schools led to a small increase in fruit and vegetable consumption among fifth-graders, a new study found.
The roughly 3 percent increase in fruit and vegetable intake among those children in schools that restricted the availability of snacks was still significant, said study co-author Edward A. Frongillo, chairman of the University of South Carolina's department of health promotion, education and behavior.
When school policies limit the availability of high-fat and high-sugar snack foods, even a small percentage increase in fruit and vegetable consumption among fifth-graders means the policy may affect a fairly large number of children throughout the school, Frongillo said.
The findings were published in the January 2009 issue of The Journal of Nutrition.
The study surveyed 10,285 fifth-graders at 2,065 elementary schools nationwide. School administrators reported on snack-restriction policies and snack availability from vending machines, school stores, snack bars and cafeterias.
The children themselves reported on their fruit and vegetable consumption for the entire day, not just during school hours and not just snacks.
"What the data are saying is that children's experience in one part of their day is having an impact on the whole of the day," Frongillo said. "The implication isn't that there are bad ways to provide food to children. The real issue is, are we modeling in the foods we make available to children what they should be eating?"
Lona Sandon, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, challenged that theory about children's eating habits.
"In elementary school, they really model [follow] what their parents are doing. Once they get into junior high, they may begin to make a little bit more choices on their own," she said.
If parents don't eat fruits and vegetables at home, their children "are probably not going to start eating them in school," added Sandon, who is a registered dietitian and an assistant professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.
"Snack policies are not intended to make them eat more fruits and vegetables. They're intended to cut down on added sugar and calories that lead to childhood obesity," she said.
Sandon also said school cafeteria services get an "awfully bad rap. The kids are only eating one meal at school, and they are only at school one third of their day."
Snack policies have become part of the national debate on childhood obesity. A recent Temple University study showed that three-quarters of middle schools in their nationwide sample of 42 schools have vending machines that dispense snacks and sugared drinks.
Another study earlier this year by Mathematica Policy Research in Cambridge, Mass., found that only about 17 percent of elementary schools have vending machines, while 82 percent of middle schools and 97 percent of high schools have them.
School breakfasts and lunches that receive federal subsidies have to meet federal nutrition guidelines, said Sonya Jones, a co-author of the new study and an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina department of health promotion, education and behavior.
"Elementary school meals sort of reflect what we think a healthy lunch or breakfast looks like, and children are developing those habits as part of their development," she said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on childhood obesity.