Spread the word » Facebook Twitter
Prevention Institute




Prevention Institute

May 11, 2012


Highlighting School Food Environments

ENACT Day, Strategic Alliance’s annual grassroots advocacy day, is just around the corner. On May 16th, nearly 150 participants will convene in Sacramento to educate policymakers about opportunities to improve California’s food and activity environments.

What issues are we bringing to our elected officials’ attention, and why do they matter? In this issue—the first in a two-part series— we’re taking a closer look at two bills on our ENACT Day Agenda aimed at creating healthy school food environments.

Removing Sports Drinks from School (AB 1746)

While a current California law restricts the sale of soda and most other sugar-sweetened beverages in public schools, sports drinks are still permitted and widely available. AB 1746 seeks to close this loophole. While the beverage industry markets these beverages as a healthier, “better-for-you” alternative to soda, this is simply not true. Like soda, sports drinks easily exceed the daily recommended amount of sugar for children (one 20-ounce drink contains a staggering 35 grams of added sugar). “The marketing for these drinks are that they are healthy, but the reality is they are still very high in sugar,” said Assemblymember Das Williams, who authored AB1746. “We probably wouldn’t want our kids eating 22 Starburst candies a day…that’s probably not what we want them to be drinking, either.” Further, sports drinks contain added sodium, and frequent consumption adversely affects dental health. How pervasive are sports drinks in schools? Last year, 55% of middle school students and 80% of high school students could buy one of these beverages at school.

See how the issue of unhealthy beverages in schools is playing out in the media:

  • When the health impacts of sports drinks came under scrutiny, the beverage industry backpedaled tremendously on its branding of these beverages. “The carbohydrates and calories are functional in Gatorade, a sport drink, and are meant to provide fuel specifically for athletes,” stated one Gatorade Communications representative. “The ingredients in Gatorade are backed by years of scientific research that support the need for carbohydrate sugars for fuel during training or competition and we only recommend Gatorade during the active occasion.” If this is the case, then why did the beverage industry fight to keep sports drinks in schools, an environment that targets children and teens who—for the majority of the day—are sitting in the classroom?
  • Several schools in California have taken the lead in facilitating healthy beverage access. Two schools in Madera County, for example, have installed portable water stations. And a set of case studies put together by CA Project Lean highlights other successful efforts to eliminate sports drinks.
  • A recent study of California teens found that existing school nutrition standards are having a notable impact on what students eat. The study propelled school food environments into the media, prompting The New York Times, The Washington Post, and NPR to address the issue. And a recent blog post on MomsRising further makes the case that healthy school food environments are a key strategy for safeguarding kids’ health.

Here are some talking points to continue to broaden the frame and discussion of this issue:

  • Despite the beverage industry’s deceptive marketing, sports drinks are not a healthier alternative to soft drinks and do not belong in schools. Sports drinks are high in sugar and sodium, and while they provide useful energy for athletes in the midst extended physical activity, the average student in the cafeteria does not fit this description.  As a report released by the American Academy of Pediatrics stated, “for the average child engaged in routine physical activity, the use of sports drinks in place of water on the sports field or in the school lunchroom is generally unnecessary.”
  • All students should have access to fresh, free drinking water in schools. The healthier alternative to sugar sweetened beverages is water, plain and simple. In a survey of CA school districts, 40% indicated none of the cafeterias in their districts provided students with access to free drinking water during school meals. Now, more than ever, it’s time to shift the balance back toward health.
  • Californians overwhelmingly support efforts to improve school food environments. In a recent field poll of California voters, 96% agreed it’s important to make healthy foods and drinks available in schools, and 85% indicated it’s important for the government to make drinking water available for free in schools.

Learn more about AB 1746 here.

Reducing Stigma from School Lunch Participation (AB 1781)

While the National School Lunch program requires that all public schools in California must make a free or reduced price nutritious meal available to qualifying students, there is no requirement that these meals be available in all food service lines. Because some lines offer only à la carte items (foods—including chips and candy—sold outside of the federally reimbursed school meal programs), many students must go elsewhere for their food, which may inadvertently identify them as low-income. To avoid this stigma, many low-income students opt to purchase the less healthy à la carte items, or go without a meal altogether. AB1781 would ensure that a reimbursable school meal be made available at any service line that school food services operates.

Here are some related stories:

  • “For students on free or reduced price lunch, the only option the government will pay for is the hot meal. Thus, the snack [à la carte] line, symbolizing consumerism and choice, becomes the “cool” option,” states one recent article. “Kids start to feel embarrassed to eat the hot lunch, or even to stand near that line, because people might think they are poor, and getting free lunch.”
  • Another blog noted school food was a "social wedge and source of stigmatization," and that this stigma "certainly deters children from participating [in the school lunch program]."
  • Several pieces illustrating the issue of stigma in school cafeterias have been published, and despite being written in previous years, the issue remains just as important today. A New York Times article quoted a student who claimed lunchtime “is the best time to impress your peers,” and being seen with a subsidized meal “lowers your status.”

Here are some talking points to continue to broaden the frame and discussion of this issue:

  • No child should be discouraged from participating in the school lunch program. The federal school lunch program provides vital nutrition assistance to those who need it most—over half of California students qualify for free or reduced price meals. These meals, which must meet strict nutritional standards, can provide both health and academic benefits, while also drawing additional federal funds (per-meal reimbursements) in to California.
  • Removing stigma from school cafeterias contributes to an environment in which all students are treated equally. School cafeterias should not be an environment that separates students along socioeconomic lines, and no student should ever be told they must go elsewhere to get their meal. All students have a right to a healthy, balanced meal, and when they forego this meal due to a fear of stigma, that is simply unacceptable.

Learn more about AB 1781 here.

Take Action:

  • For those who can’t make it to ENACT Day, join us virtually on Twitter on May 16 (@strat_alliance) for updates on the day’s events. We’ll be live-tweeting throughout the day—using the hashtag #ENACT2012—and invite you to join the conversation.
  • Respond to related news coverage you come across with a letter to the editor, op-ed, or online comment on how school food environments impact health (and don’t forget to share it with us, too).
  • Schedule a visit with your local legislator, and let them know how school food environments impact your community. Together, we’ll use this day to build momentum for healthy, equitable environments, and make the case that investing in health and safety now will benefit us all. 

Support Us

About Us