Almost one-third of children are obese. A number of factors contribute to childhood obesity , including genetic, lifestyle, and environmental exposures. One important environmental factor, the school environment, has been implicated in the rising rates of childhood obesity.

A new study in the December 2005 issue of the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine examined the association between schoolwide food policies and body mass index (BMI, a measure of weight in relation to height), and found that the policies had a significant effect on students’ BMI.

About the Study

This study included 3,088 eighth-grade students from 16 schools. The students reported their height and weight, and the researchers calculated their BMI. Researchers interviewed school administrators to determine how many of seven school food practices were permitted in their school. The selected practices included allowing food and/or beverages in the classroom or hallway, using food as reward or incentive, and classroom or schoolwide fundraising that included food sales.

For each additional food practice allowed by a school, student BMI increased by 10%. The most common practices were the use of food as incentives and rewards, and the use of food in classroom fundraising.

This study was limited because it relied on self-reported data from students and school administrators. Measuring the students’ height and weight, and observing school food practices would have yielded more accurate results.

How Does This Affect You?

These findings support other evidence that the school environment has a powerful impact on students’ weight. By giving students more opportunities to eat and drink throughout the day and using food as a reward, school administrators and teachers may be putting students at risk for weight gain. This is no isolated problem. Overweight children are at considerably increased risk for becoming obese adults.

Parents, of course, bare the primary responsibility for promoting good nutrition and providing their children with healthful foods and beverages. By eliminating the availability of extra junk food and using nonfood incentives or healthful snacks as rewards, school officials can certainly choose to become part of the solution, rather than problem.