Trends in Children’s Eating Behaviors
A recent USDA analysis 1,2 of the 1994-96 Continuing Survey of Food Intakes for Individuals (CSFII) noted these alarming trends in children’s eating patterns:
- Only 2 percent of school-aged children meet the Food Guide Pyramid serving recommendations for all five major food groups.
- Girls, ages 14 to 18, have especially low intakes of fruits and dairy products.
- Overall, the percentages of children meeting the recommended number of food group servings are 14 percent for fruit, 17 percent for meat, 20 percent for vegetables, 23 percent for grains, and 30 percent for milk.
- More than two-thirds of females, ages 14 to 18, exceed the recommendations for intake of total fat and saturated fat, but even greater percentages of children exceed these recommendations among the other age/gender groups.
- Children’s diets are high in added sugars. For all children, added sugars – including sugars used as ingredients in processed foods or added to foods as they are consumed—contribute an average of 20 percent of total food energy.
- Non-Hispanic blacks are at increased risk of low or inadequate intakes of calcium, phosphorous, and vitamin A and are also more likely to exceed the dietary recommendations for total fat, saturated fat, and sodium intake.
- Children are heavy consumers of regular or diet soda. Overall, 56 to 85 percent of children (depending on age and gender) consume soda on any given day. Teenage males are especially heavy consumers of soda, with over a third consuming more than three servings a day.
- All of the age/gender groups experienced a shift from milk products to soda and fruit drinks. The decrease in milk consumption tended to be larger for females than for males.
Related Health Issues
These trends have contributed to some serious diet-related health concerns:
- The prevalence of overweight among youth ages 6-17 years in the U.S. has more than doubled in the past 30 years; most of the increase has occurred since the late 1970s. Current evidence suggests that childhood overweight and obesity continue into adulthood.
- One of the most serious aspects of overweight and obesity in children is Type II diabetes. Type II diabetes accounted for 2 to 4 percent of all childhood diabetes before 1992, but skyrocketed to 16 percent by 1994. Overweight adolescents are much more likely to become overweight adults, with increased risk for developing heart disease and stroke, gallbladder disease, arthritis, and endometrial, breast, prostate and colon cancers. 3
- Failure to meet calcium requirements in childhood can hinder the achievement of maximal skeletal growth and bone mineralization. Getting enough calcium in the diet during childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, to reduce the risk for osteoporosis later in life is particularly important for females.
Nutrition Contribution of School Meal Programs
Nutrition clearly has a major impact on children—on their health, their ability to learn, and on their potential for becoming healthy and productive adults. School meals make an important contribution to the nutrition of school-aged children. The recently published School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study-II 5 indicates that reimbursable meals selected by students exceed the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) standard for key nutrients. According to a recently published USDA analysis 1 of the 1994-96 CSFII data:
- National School Lunch Program (NSLP) participation is associated with higher average intakes of many nutrients, both at lunch and over 24 hours.
- NSLP participants have substantially lower intakes of added sugars than do nonparticipants.
- NSLP participants are more likely than nonparticipants to consume vegetables, milk and milk products, and meat and other protein-rich foods, both at lunch and over 24 hours; they also consume less soda and/or fruit drinks.
- School Breakfast Program participation is associated with higher intakes of food energy, calcium, phosphorous, and vitamin C.
The Changing School Environment
In the initial years of the NSLP, reimbursable school lunches were the primary source of foods for students at schools. Today in middle/junior high and senior high schools, they represent a smaller part of the school food environment, and this trend is emerging in elementary schools as well. Many schools now provide increased food options: foods are for sale in vending machines, school stores and snack bars; and a la carte foods are for sale in the cafeteria. In addition, the less nutritious options are now available to students at younger ages than ever before. Long considered a high school problem, competitive foods are often seen in middle/junior high schools, where students are particularly vulnerable to peer pressure, and even in elementary schools, where food preferences are most easily influenced.
The decisions for schools to provide these alternatives are driven by a variety of factors.
Students’ preferences. One of the biggest challenges school meal program managers face is the competition with foods that are marketed to children through multi-million-dollar, glitzy, and sophisticated advertising campaigns. Today’s students come to school with established preferences for fast foods, sweetened beverages and salty snacks. In addition, students often prefer visiting with friends around vending machines or snack bars to standing in a long line for a school meal and eating it in a crowded cafeteria.
Increased financial demands and limited resources. With increasing financial pressures and limited resources, schools often put nutrition at the bottom of the priority list. School food service programs, which were once regular line items in local school operating budgets, must often be completely self-supporting. Many schools are compensating for the loss of funds due to budget cuts by increasing prices for school meals and/or increasing the sale of a la carte foods and fast food options in the school dining room.
"Pouring rights" contracts. For many schools, competitive foods, especially carbonated beverages, represent a source of additional income that can be spent for discretionary purposes not necessarily related to food service. There has been a recent trend for school districts to negotiate exclusive "pouring rights" contracts with soft drink companies.6 Many of these contracts have provisions to increase the percentage of profits schools receive when sales volume increases. This is a substantial incentive for schools to promote soft drink consumption by adding vending machines, increasing the times they are available, and marketing the products to students.
Preparation and serving space limitations. As school populations expand and budgets shrink, schools give higher priority to building classrooms than to expanding the food service facilities. Food service facilities are often inadequate for preparing and serving appealing school meals to all students. The Food Service Equipment Assistance Program, designed to help financially needy schools buy the equipment necessary to efficiently prepare and serve school meals, was eliminated in 1981. In some schools, inadequate seating capacity requires lunch periods to begin as early as 10:00 a.m. and end as late as 1:30 p.m. With inadequate dining facilities and insufficient time to eat, many students turn to less nutritious foods that are readily accessible in vending machines and snack bars.
Inadequate meal periods. Another complicating factor in the competitive foods issue is the pressure on schools for academic performance. In an attempt to provide additional classroom time during the existing school day, schools—particularly high schools— frequently reduce the length of meal periods. Many schools schedule tutoring, club meetings and other extracurricular activities during meal periods. Consequently, children choose foods they can get and eat quickly—or skip meals altogether.
Lack of education standards for school food service directors or managers. Finally, there are no national standards for school food service directors or managers. As a result, levels of education vary from advanced degrees to less than a high school education. In Louisiana, which has the highest level of school lunch participation in the country, a minimum requirement for State certification as a Child Nutrition Program Director/Supervisor is a master’s degree in home economics, institutional management, nutrition or dietetics from an accredited institution of higher learning and specific course requirements in nutrition.7 Appropriate standards are necessary to ensure that school food and nutrition professionals themselves understand the nutrition and health issues associated with competitive foods. Such standards are also necessary for the professional to handle the varied responsibilities of the job—such as dealing with multimillion-dollar budgets, serving as a spokesperson for children’s nutrition needs to the school administration and the community, and being included as a full partner in the education process