Principals' and Foodservice Directors' Perceptions Differ on Food Policy

February 1, 2006

(University Park, Pa) — Penn State researchers have found differences between high school principals' and foodservice directors' perceptions of “competitive food” policies that highlight the need for communication among key stakeholders addressing new wellness policy development mandated by the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004.

Elaine McDonnell, project coordinator who led the study, says, “Competitive foods are those sold on K through 12 school campuses that compete with school meals. Currently, school meals must meet nutrient standards and the Dietary Guidelines but competitive foods are only minimally regulated and are often low in nutritional value.”

The competitive food regulatory situation is, however, mandated for change. The new law requires sponsors of school meal programs to develop wellness polices by the 2006-2007 school year that address childhood obesity. Local communities must develop nutrition guidelines for all foods and beverages sold on their high school and elementary school campuses, including competitive foods offered as a la carte items, in vending machines, in school stores and through school fundraisers and parties.

McDonnell notes, “Wellness policy development has been mandated to parents, students, school food authorities, school boards, school administrators and the public. It offers a wonderful opportunity and impetus for local communities and schools to become pro-active in combating childhood obesity.”

The researchers detail their results in a paper, “School Competitive Food Policies: Perceptions of Pennsylvania Public High School Foodservice Directors and Principals,” in the current (February) issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. The authors are McDonnell, Dr. Claudia Probart, associate professor of nutritional sciences, J. Elaine Weirich, project coordinator, Dr. Terryl Hartman, associate professor of nutritional sciences and Lisa Bailey-Davis, director of operations, Pennsylvania Advocates for Nutrition and Activity, Penn State Harrisburg.

The researchers sent surveys to the food service directors at half (271) of the public high schools in Pennsylvania and received an 84 percent response. One hundred principals at the same schools were also asked to complete a survey and 79 percent of them did. The schools were representative of the entire population of high schools in Pennsylvania based on region, rate of free and reduced-price lunch participants, enrollment and percent rural.

The researchers found that more principals than school foodservice directors reported the existence of enforced policies. The researchers write, “A troubling finding in our research is the number of respondents, most often school foodservice directors, stating 'policy exists but is not always enforced.'” The researchers say this finding suggests that competitive foods may be directly competing with school meals even in schools with policies aimed at discouraging this practice, because of weak enforcement.

Another area of disagreement in the responses provided by principals and foodservice directors was nutritional standards for a la carte foods. Almost 40 percent of principals reported this as policy that is enforced, compared with only 15 percent of school foodservice directors. Since foodservice directors likely have authority for a la carte foods, the finding suggests misconceptions by principals.

Similar to previous research, the Penn State researchers found that, in general, there are few school nutrition policies related to competitive foods. However, they found that the least-regulated areas result from lack of policies or recommendations on the following: prohibiting school personnel from using food as a reward; setting nutritional standards for foods offered through school parties; and setting nutritional standards for foods sold through clubs. These same issues are among those that the USDA has identified as important to address in establishing healthful school nutrition environments.

The study was supported by the Pennsylvania Department of Health through a Grant/Cooperative Agreement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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