Healthy food choices: can schools improve their grades?

August 17, 2009 Volume 7 Issue 3
  • 1 out of 8 parents give schools a "D" or "F" for healthy food choices.
  • Parents of primary school students give better grades for healthy food choices than parents of secondary school students

Americans are increasingly worried about the problem of childhood obesity in their communities (see Vol 7, Issue 2). School food and drinks, whether in cafeterias or in vending machines, can contribute to diets high in calories and fat. Although federal and state programs encourage schools to provide healthy choices, menus are managed locally. Very little is known about parents’ views of the foods available in 2009 at their children’s schools. What parents think is important: in September, Congress will consider the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act, which funds school breakfast and lunch programs.

The CS Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health conducted a survey in May 2009, to measure parents’ opinions about healthy food choices at their children’s public schools (about 67 million students). Nationwide, 33% of parents give their children's schools an "A" grade for offering healthy food choices. On the other hand, 12% give their children's schools a "D" or an "F". Of note, as shown in Table 1, parents give primary schools much better grades for healthy food (37% "A"; 10% "D"/"F") than they give secondary schools (21% "A"; 18% "D"/"F").

Parents who rate childhood obesity as a big problem for  children in their communities give schools lower grades (25% "A"; 15% "D"/"F") for healthy food choices than do parents who do not rate childhood obesity as a big problem (37% "A"; 11% "D"/"F").

Parents' grades for healthy food choices in public schools do not differ by household income, region of the country or by race/ethnicity.

Implications

In the next few weeks, Congress will shape the next 5 years of federal support for school breakfasts and lunches for low-income kids. Given public concern about childhood obesity, and higher levels of concern about school food among parents who believe obesity is a major health problem, Congress can lead on this issue by raising nutritional standards for its programs. But local school decisions will always remain very important. That means that parents must engage their children’s schools on this issue directly in order to improve schools’ healthy food choices.

Data Source

This report presents findings from a nationally representative household survey conducted exclusively by Knowledge Networks, Inc, for C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital via a method used in many published studies. The survey was administered in May 2009 to a randomly selected,  stratified group of parents aged 18 and older (n=1,087) from the Knowledge Networks standing panel that closely resembles the U.S. population. The sample was subsequently weighted to reflect population figures from the Census Bureau. The survey completion rate was 59% among panel members contacted to participate. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 1 to 6 percentage points.

C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health
Director: Matthew M. Davis, MD, MAPP
Associate Director: Sarah J. Clark, MPH
Manager & Editor: Dianne C. Singer, MPH
Data Analyst: Amy T. Butchart, MPH

This Report includes research findings from the C.S. Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health, which do not represent the opinions of the investigators or the opinions of the University of Michigan. The University of Michigan reserves all rights over this material.

Click on an image to download the full-size version

Report card for healthy food choices in schools