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Accessibility Over Availability: Associations Between the School Food Environment and Student Fruit and Green Vegetable Consumption

Terry-McElrath YM, O'Malley PM and Johnston LD. Childhood Obesity, 2014; 10(3):241-250.

Background: No national studies have examined associations between (1) school food availability and accessibility and (2) secondary student fruit and vegetable (FV) consumption. This article uses 5 years of nationally representative data from secondary school students to examine associations between the school food environment and student fruit and green vegetable consumption.

Methods: From 2008 to 2012, cross-sectional, nationally representative data from US middle and high school students were collected annually on self-reported fruit and green vegetable consumption. Each year, data from administrators at each relevant school were collected on food item availability (any venue) and accessibility (total number of school sources). Data were obtained from 10,254 eighth-grade students in 317 schools and 18,898 tenth- and 12th-grade students in 518 schools. Associations were estimated using multi-level models controlling for student- and school-level characteristics.

Results: Availability showed minimal associations with student consumption. Candy/regular-fat snack accessibility was associated negatively with middle school fruit consumption. Salad bar availability and accessibility were positively associated with middle-school green vegetable consumption; FV accessibility was associated positively with high school fruit and green vegetable consumption. Significant associations were consistent across student racial/ethnic and socioeconomic groups.

Conclusions: Forthcoming USDA nutrition standards for school foods and beverages sold outside of reimbursable meal programs should result in the removal of school candy/regular-fat snacks. In deciding which items to make available under the new standards, schools should consider increasing the number of FV sources—including salad bars—thereby potentially increasing student FV consumption.

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