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Calories In, Calories Out: Food and Exercise in Public Elementary Schools, 2005

NCES 2006-057
May 2006


The rate of obesity among school-age children has become a national concern, with the number of overweight children aged 6 to 11 more than tripling over the past three decades (U.S. Government Accountability Office 2005). In 2001, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a Call to Action to Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity, and in 2002, Congress charged the Institute of Medicine (IOM) with developing an action plan to target this health issue. Among the core recommendations of the IOM's 2004 report was a call for schools to create environments that support healthy eating and an active lifestyle. Federal, state, and local initiatives have also emphasized an "energy balance" approach-calories consumed versus calories expended-as critical to understanding and addressing the factors related to overweight and obesity (Institute of Medicine 2005). For example, the 2005 Dietary Guidelines report included a recommendation for at least 60 minutes of physical activity daily for children 6 to 11 years old, twice the minimum amount recommended for adults.

Research on school nutrition has focused primarily on the nutritional content of federally subsidized school meals and the extent to which foods are available for sale outside of those meals. Ongoing research from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), for example, suggests that while schools have made significant strides in offering healthy school meals that meet U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) requirements, there is concern about the availability of foods that compete with those school meals. A recent GAO study concluded that foods sold outside of school meals have become more available to middle school students over the past 5 years (U.S. Government Accountability Office 2005). These foods, including both nutritious foods and foods of low nutritional value, are often sold during mealtimes in or around school cafeterias and in vending machines or school stores. In addition, while many schools have introduced healthier food choices for their students, a major constraint for some schools is their reliance on the funds generated through the sale of popular foods such as soda and sweet snacks.

While there is heightened attention on the role that schools can play in addressing concerns about nutrition and physical activity among young children and youth, the most recent national data on both school nutrition and physical activity opportunities for students come from the 2000 School Health Policies and Programs Study (SHPPS), conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The study findings concurred with ongoing findings from GAO reports about the availability of foods outside of school meals and the low nutritional value of some of those foods (Burgeson et al. 2001). The study also indicated that some schools may be cutting back on the time available for physical education and recess in order to fit as much classroom time as possible into the school day.

Methods and Data

The Fast Response Survey System (FRSS) questionnaire, Foods and Physical Activity in Public Elementary Schools: 2005, was designed to obtain current national information on the availability of foods and opportunities for physical activity in public elementary schools. The survey covered the following topics:

  • food services at the school, including cafeteria services and the availability of foods at vending machines and school stores or snack bars;
  • types of food sold at one or more locations in the school and in the cafeteria or lunchroom;
  • types of food sold at vending machines and school stores or snack bars, and times when foods were available at these locations;
  • food service operations and contracts with companies to sell foods at the school;
  • scheduled recess, including the days per week, times per day, and minutes per day of recess;
  • scheduled physical education, including the days per week, class length, and average minutes per week of physical education;
  • activities to encourage physical activity among elementary students; and
  • physical assessment of students.

The study was conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) using the Fast Response Survey System. FRSS is designed to administer short, focused, issue-oriented surveys that place minimal burden on respondents and have a quick turnaround from data collection to reporting. Questionnaires for the survey were mailed in spring 2005 to a representative sample of 1,198 regular public elementary schools in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Regular public elementary schools were defined as schools with a high grade of 1 to 8 and a low grade of prekindergarten, kindergarten, or grades 1 to 3.

The sample was selected from the 2002-03 NCES Common Core of Data (CCD) Public School Universe file, which was the most current file available at the time of sample selection. The sampling frame includes approximately 51,000 regular public elementary schools. Data have been weighted to yield national estimates. The unweighted and weighted response rates were both 91 percent. Detailed information about the survey methodology is provided in appendix A, and the questionnaire can be found in Acrobat PDF File - Questionnaire appendix B (80 KB).

The primary purpose of this E.D. TAB is to present national estimates of the availability of foods and opportunities for physical activity in public elementary schools. In addition, selected survey findings are presented by the following school characteristics, which are defined in more detail in appendix A:

  • school enrollment size (enrollment of less than 300, 300 to 499, 500 or more);
  • locale (city, urban fringe, town, rural);
  • region (Northeast, Southeast, Central, West);
  • percent minority enrollment (less than 6 percent, 6 to 20 percent, 21 to 49 percent, 50 percent or more); and
  • percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (less than 35 percent, 35 to 49 percent, 50 to 74 percent, 75 percent or more), which is used as a proxy measure of poverty concentration at the school.

Throughout this report, school enrollment size will be referred to as small, medium, or large schools. The percent of students eligible for free or reduced-priced lunch will be referred to as poverty concentration.

The focus on comparisons by school characteristics is primarily on significant differences by enrollment size and poverty concentration. Comparisons by other characteristics (e.g., region and locale) are reported only where significant differences were detected and followed meaningful patterns (e.g., when differences by school locale were consistent across the various types of foods available for sale). The E.D. TAB is purely descriptive in nature, and readers are cautioned not to draw causal inferences based solely on the bivariate results presented in this report. It is important to note that many of the variables examined in this report are related to one another, and complex interactions and relationships have not been explored here. The variables examined here also demonstrate the range of information that helped shape the design and now is available from the study. The selected findings are examples of comparisons that can be made using the data and are not designed to emphasize any particular issue. Release of the E.D. TAB is intended to encourage more in-depth analysis of the data, using more sophisticated statistical methods.

All specific statements of comparison presented in this report have been tested for statistical significance through t tests and are significant at the 95 percent confidence level. Throughout this report, differences that may appear large (particularly those by school characteristics) may not be statistically significant. This may be due to the relatively large standard errors surrounding the estimates. A detailed description of the statistical tests supporting the survey findings can be found in appendix A.