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Researchers say Boston schools’ sugary drink policy is one to model

When it comes to sugar-sweetened drinks and other competitive beverages sold at school, Harvard researchers report that Boston Public Schools are making strides in the right direction. A study of 115 public schools found that nearly 90 percent met the state’s nutrition standards for competitive beverages.

Competitive beverages are drinks sold outside of the federally reimbursable school meal program, including soft drinks, fruit drinks, sweetened teas, and sports drinks. These beverages are found in vending machines, a la carte lines, school stores, and snack bars and often include sugar-sweetened beverages, which are associated with obesity.

Researchers looked at the availability of competitive beverages nine years after the introduction of the 2004 district-wide nutrition standards for competitive beverages sold in Boston Public Schools. They documented the types of competitive beverages sold and collected nutrition data to determine compliance with the standards.

This is what the study found:

  • 89.6 percent of total schools met the competitive beverage nutrition standards
  • 88.5 percent of elementary schools and 61.5 percent of middle schools did not sell competitive beverages
  • Nutrition standards were met in 79.2 percent of high schools; 37.5 percent did not sell any competitive beverages, and 41.7 percent sold only beverages meeting the nutrition standards
  • Overall, 85.5 percent of students attended schools meeting the nutrition standards
  • Only 4 percent of students had access to sugar-sweetened beverages

These study findings point to the health benefits of a strong competitive beverage policy, like the one used by Boston Public Schools.

In contrast, nationally, only about 40 percent of district wellness policies ban soda as competitive beverages in schools, and less than 20 percent of elementary and 10 percent of middle or high schools ban other types of sugar-sweetened beverages. Other nutrition standards may be included in wellness policies, but the provisions are often weak; many simply recommend that the availability of sugar-sweetened beverages be limited or that they be sold only to older children.

“Our study demonstrates that a comprehensive district-wide policy, in coordination with ongoing professional education, community-identified tools, and technical assistance training, can translate into a sustained healthier environment in public schools,” researchers wrote.

The study is published in Preventing Chronic Disease.