In 2012, Massachusetts raised standards for the quality of school food with changes to be implemented by 2014. One year later, Northeastern Associate Professor of Psychology Jessica Hoffman studied compliance with the standards and found that the legislation led to significant improvements in the health benefits of competitive foods and beverages.
Competitive foods and beverages are those in vending machines, school stores, and for fundraisers — foods that compete with school meals.
Before implementation, 13% of foods at the middle school level met the standards, writes Joe O'Connell of News @ Northeastern. A year later, 69% of foods made the grade. Beverage compliance skyrocketed from 28% to 80%.
According to the researchers, the study shows an example of how other states can implement similar standards.
Hoffman, the lead author of the study, said:
For decades, competitive foods have not been regulated at the national level, so states have taken it upon themselves to do something. These standards that were put in place in Massachusetts were really exciting because at the time they were some of the strictest standards in the whole country.
It's easier to make the changes in beverages because categorically things are compliant or not compliant. For example, the sugar-sweetened beverages are easy to recognize and eliminate.
The standards include allowing only the sale of nonfat or low-fat milk and offering fruits and vegetables. Artificial sweeteners, trans fats, fried food, white bread, and caffeine are banned, and fat, sodium, and sugar are limited, writes Steve LeBlanc of the Associated Press.
Schools were given until 2013 to ban flavored milk, which studies have shown makes milk consumption drop slightly before it rebounds. A school district in Lawrence found that milk choices were made primarily by the color of the carton, not the variety of milk they contained, according to Kay Lazar of the Globe.
Dr. Lauren Smith, Medical Director of the Department of Public Health, said that resistance was expected:
We knew that people were going to have strong feelings about this and were concerned that overall milk consumption would drop. We wanted to give schools time to prepare so it can be done in a seamless way.
There was no external incentive for schools to follow the guidelines. Hoffman noted:
People in food services really did want to make improvements.
Researchers visited 74 middle schools and high schools in 37 school districts over an 18 month period to catalog the brand names, packaging, and serving size of the available snack foods.
The paper was published this month in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The study, which also included researchers from Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Brandeis University's Heller School of Social Policy and Management, was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. It's the first in the team's larger NOURISH study — Nutrition Opportunities to Understand Reforms Involving Student Health. Subsequent papers will study the impact of these changes.