STUDY: After nearly a decade, Boston Public School’s competitive beverage policy continues to sustain a healthier environment for students

An evaluation by the HPRC found nearly 90 percent of schools were compliant with competitive beverage guidelines nine years after the district-wide policy was implemented.

In 2004, Boston Public Schools (BPS) was the first school district in Massachusetts to implement a mandatory nutrition standards policy for competitive foods and beverages—which include any snacks and drinks sold in schools that compete with those available through the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs. The policy prohibited the sale of all sugar-sweetened beverages like regular soda, fruit drinks, and sports or energy drinks, and set specific guidelines on the portion size of other beveragVending machinees. A 2013 evaluation of beverage availability in 115 schools found that 103 of these schools—nearly 90 percent—met the standards. Further, 75 percent of these schools did not sell any competitive beverages, and the other 15 percent sold only competitive beverages that met the standards.

“This study found that overall, 85 percent of our students attended schools meeting the robust nutrition standards for beverages implemented almost a decade ago,” said study author Jill Carter, Executive Director of the Health and Wellness Department for Boston Public Schools. “Even further, 96 percent of students did not have access to any sugar-sweetened beverages at school. It is encouraging to see that our efforts to maintain these strong standards have created a healthier school beverage environment.”

Grocery store shelves of sugary drinks and bottles of waterAcross the U.S., the situation looks much different. Nationally, the majority of high school and middle school students—around 89 percent and 58 percent, respectively—have access to sugar-sweetened drinks at school. In elementary schools, 12 percent of students have access. These drinks are associated with significant negative health effects, including overweight and obesity as well as tooth decay.

Here in Boston, only four percent of BPS students had access to sugar-sweetened drinks, and most competitive beverages that did not meet the BPS snack and beverage standards were 100% juices and low-fat flavored or unflavored milks. Although not permitted by the BPS standards, these drinks are permitted according to the federal Smart Snacks in Schools’ nutrition guidelines. Research also suggests that milks and 100% juices are not associated with the same health risks attributed to sugar-sweetened beverages.

“Health and government organizations promote the implementation of strong nutrition standards for foods and beverages sold in schools as an important strategy to improve children’s health,” said lead author Rebecca Mozaffarian, an HPRC project manager at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Our study shows that strong nutrition standards that school districts can implement may indeed translate into healthier environments for our kids.”

The study points to multiple factors that contributed to the policy’s success, including coordination with ongoing professional education, community identified tools, as well as technical assistance and training. These findings and policy implementation strategies may be particularly encouraging to school districts nationally as they work to comply with Smart Snacks in Schools requirements.

Mozaffarian RS, Gortmaker SL, Kenney EL, Carter JE, Westfall Howe MC, Reiner JF, Cradock AL.  Assessment of a Districtwide Policy on Availability of Competitive Beverages in Boston Public Schools, Massachusetts, 2013.  Prev Chronic Dis, 2016;13:150483.