Healthy eating programs in schools can substantially reduce the amount of unhealthy food and beverages students consume if the programs focus on school-specific needs and involve parents, teachers, staff and administrators, according to a Kaiser Permanente Southern California study released today.
Funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Research Initiative, the Healthy Options for Nutrition Environments in School study used a "public health approach" to change nutrition environments and policies in eight elementary and middle schools over a three-year period.
"Schools are an ideal place for establishing life-long healthy eating habits, but until now that's been easier said than done," said study lead author Karen J. Coleman of Kaiser's Department of Research and Evaluation. "The Healthy ONES study helped us understand how communities and schools could work together to get kids to eat healthier at school and help address childhood obesity."
Researchers found that using a more participatory public health approach decreased the amount of unhealthy foods and beverages by 30 percent in intervention schools.
As part of the study, researchers worked with teachers and administrators to change certain unhealthy nutrition practices by replacing food and beverage classroom rewards with nonfood prizes and implementing nutrition-conscious catering at school-wide events, classroom celebrations and fundraising events.
Researchers said schools were able to raise more money using healthy events like "jog-a-thons" instead of carnivals selling popcorn and pizza.
According to researchers, the study differed from other traditional methods that ignore the multiple school-level issues that may affect programs' effectiveness.
"Our findings are significant because previous school-based interventions often have had little success in changing behaviors," Coleman said. "The Healthy ONES study suggests that community-driven process interventions that focus on implementation and stakeholder engagement can help schools implement their current federally mandated wellness policies. These types of interventions may have a better chance to impact child obesity than other attempts to change school health practices."