A recent study published in The Journal of Nutrition found that food environments within and outside of schools are associated with differential obesity trajectories over time and can play an important role in curtailing the rising trends in childhood obesity.
The prevalence of obesity among school-age children in the United States continues to grow especially among children from low-income households. Racial/ethnic disparities are especially alarming, with higher rates among Hispanic and non-Hispanic Black children compared to non-Hispanic White and non-Hispanic Asian children. Although childhood obesity is complex and is affected by an array of factors across multiple domains, only a few large-scale research studies have examined the relationship between obesity trends and children’s exposure to various school and community-based obesity prevention programs. To bridge this existing knowledge gap, Ohri-Vachaspati (College of Health Solutions, Arizona State University) and colleagues assessed the association between school and community food environments and the prevalence of obesity over time.
Data were collected from K-12 schools in 4 low-income New Jersey cities in the United States over a 7-year period. School-level obesity prevalence, calculated from nurse-measured heights and weights at 4 time points, was used to establish obesity trends over time. Data on the school food environment measured the healthfulness of school lunch and competitive food offerings annually. The count and presence of different types of food outlets likely to be frequented by students provided a measure of the community food environment over the same period.
The prevalence of obesity increased from 25% to 29% over the course of the study. Obesity rates were higher in schools that had nearby access to a greater number of limited-service restaurants and lower in schools with access to small grocery stores and upgraded convenience stores participating in initiatives to improve healthful offerings. Schools that offered unhealthy, competitive foods experienced a faster increase in obesity rates over time. Overall, schools with unhealthy school food environments and high-density community food environments experienced a steeper time trend in obesity prevalence compared to schools with access to healthier school food environments and low-density community food environments.
These findings support the hypothesis that the availability of unhealthy competitive food options is detrimental to school-level obesity outcomes. This study also provides strong evidence that food environments within and outside of schools have a meaningful impact on obesity prevalence in school-aged children and can play an important role in curtailing rising childhood obesity trends. Implementation of effective strategies do develop stronger nutrition guidelines for competitive foods sold in schools and adherence to such guidance as well as reduced access to limited-service restaurants may help curb rising childhood obesity trends.
Ohri-Vachaspati P, Acciai F, Melnick EM, Lloyd K, Martinelli S, DeWeese RS, DiSantis KI, Tulloch D, DeLia D, Yedidia MJ. Food Environments Within and Outside of Schools Play a Critical Role in Curtailing the Rise in Obesity among School-Aged Children over Time. The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 153, Issue 12, December 2023, Pages 3565-3575, doi.org/10.1016/j.tjnut.2023.09.027.
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