Implementing the latest government standards for food and beverages sold at U.S. schools would substantially improve school nutrition, according to a new University of Michigan study.

The research, published online by JAMA Pediatrics, found that from fall 2007 to spring 2012, only 2 percent of middle school students and less than 1 percent of high school students attended schools where all five components of the new U.S. Department of Agriculture nutrition standards were in place for school meals, vending machines and snack bars.

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The USDA standards limit fat, sodium, sugar and calories. Final implementation will remove student access to candy, salty snacks, sugary treats, milk with higher levels of fat, savory foods with high levels of fat and calories, and sugar-sweetened beverages.

Beginning with the 2012-13 school year, phased implementation of school meal nutrition standards began. Implementation of standards for vending machines and other competitive venues began with the 2014-15 school year.

 “These results indicate that the USDA standards — if implemented fully and monitored for compliance — have the potential to change the current U.S. school nutritional environment significantly,” said Yvonne Terry-McElrath, a researcher at the Institute for Social Research and first author of the study.

 Terry-McElrath and co-authors Patrick O’Malley and Lloyd Johnston examined what percentage of U.S. secondary school students attended schools with specific USDA components, whether the components were associated with students being overweight or obese, and whether there were differences in associations based on a variety of social and demographic characteristics.

 Their nationally representative sample included 22,716 eighth-graders in 313 schools and 30,596 10th- and 12th-grade students in 511 schools.

 The researchers analyzed five school nutrition components directly called for by the USDA standards. These include no sugar-sweetened beverages, no whole or 2 percent milk, no candy or regular-fat snacks, and no french fries. The fifth component — encouraged but not required by USDA standards — is that fruits or vegetables be available wherever food was sold.

 The findings show that 21 percent of middle schoolers and 30 percent of high schoolers attended schools without any of the components during the 2007-08 through 2011-12 school years. Only 1.8 percent and 0.3 percent of middle and high school students attended schools with all five of the nutritional components.

The nutritional component most often present in schools was the absence of french fries (58 percent of middle schoolers and 45 percent of high school students attended schools without french fries).

 An average of 26 percent of middle school students and 27 percent of high school students were classified as overweight or obese. The researchers found no significant associations between the USDA standard components and self-reported overweight or obesity among middle school students overall.

 However, among high school students, lower odds of being overweight or obese were associated with having fruits or vegetables available wherever food was sold, the absence of higher-fat milk and having three or more USDA nutritional standard components.

For Hispanic middle school students and nonwhite high school students, there was an association between the absence of sugar-sweetened beverages and lower overweight or obesity. 

The USDA standards were developed and implemented in response to rising overweight-obesity among American children, but some experts oppose their implementation, according to the researchers.

 The data were collected as part of two ISR studies: The Monitoring the Future study, supported by a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse; and the Youth, Education and Society study, part of a larger research initiative funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, titled “Bridging the Gap: Research Informing Policy and Practice for Healthy Youth Behavior.”

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