- The Washington Times - Monday, February 6, 2012

CHICAGO | Junk food remains plentiful at the nation’s elementary schools despite widespread efforts to curb childhood obesity, a new study suggests.

Between 2006 and 2010, nearly half of public and private schools surveyed sold sweet or salty snack foods in vending machines or other places, the study found.

There was little change over the four years, a surprising finding given vocal advocacy campaigns to improve youngsters’ diets, said researcher Lindsey Turner, a health psychologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the study’s lead author.

The study focused on snacks not sold during mealtimes, which until recently weren’t subject to government nutrition standards.

Schools most likely to sell chips, cookies or similar foods were in the South, where obesity rates are the highest; these foods were scarcest at schools in the West.

The results are a concern, Ms. Turner said, because they show that many schools have not heeded messages from health advocates including the Institute of Medicine, which in a 2007 report urged limiting availability of food in schools outside of mealtimes. It said these items should not be sugary, salty or fatty snack foods.

Many schools in the study also offered more healthy foods outside of mealtimes, including fruit and vegetables. But selling them along with junk food may tempt youngsters to skip the healthy options, and sends “mixed messages about healthful nutrition,” Dr. Thomas Robinson, a Stanford University pediatrician and obesity prevention researcher.

Dr. Robinson called the study results “sobering” and said a key strategy for reversing childhood obesity includes improving nutrition in schools.

Recent data suggest that almost 20 percent of elementary school children nationwide are obese. Policies that limit junk food sold in schools have been linked with less obesity among students, said C. Tracy Orleans, a senior scientist at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which paid for the study.

The study appears in Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, released Monday. Dr. Robinson wrote an accompanying editorial.

Anti-obesity advocates also have pushed to remove sugary sodas from schools, and some states and schools have enacted bans. Also, a 2010 report found a big decline in sales of these drinks to schools during some of the years studied.

The new study, which focused only on food, is based on surveys mailed to principals at public and private elementary schools. Nearly 4,000 responded, or more than half of those contacted.

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