In 2012, Mass­a­chu­setts adopted com­pre­hen­sive stan­dards to improve the healthy food options avail­able in middle schools and high schools. One year after imple­men­ta­tion, a research team that includes North­eastern asso­ciate pro­fessor Jes­sica Hoffman exam­ined com­pli­ance with the stan­dards in 74 schools across the commonwealth.

Their findings—that the leg­isla­tive action led to sig­nif­i­cant improve­ments in the com­pet­i­tive foods and bev­er­ages avail­able in schools—is encouraging.

Among the most impres­sive find­ings, the team found that before imple­men­ta­tion, at the middle school level, just 13 per­cent of com­pet­i­tive foods would have met the stan­dards. One year after imple­men­ta­tion that number rose to 69 per­cent. At the high school level, com­pet­i­tive bev­er­ages that met the stan­dards pre-​​​​implementation were 28 per­cent, but sky­rock­eted to 80 percent.

The study, the researchers say, can serve as an example for states nation­wide and is the first to shed light on how schools can suc­cess­fully imple­ment food stan­dards sim­ilar to the rec­om­men­da­tions from the Insti­tutes of Med­i­cine and the fed­eral Smart Snacks in Schools standards.


Asso­ciate pro­fessor Jes­sica Hoffman

For decades com­pet­i­tive foods have not been reg­u­lated at the national level, so states have taken it upon them­selves to do some­thing,” Hoffman said. “These stan­dards that were put in place in Mass­a­chu­setts were really exciting because at the time they were some of strictest stan­dards in the whole country.”

Hoffman, an asso­ciate pro­fessor in the Depart­ment of Applied Psy­chology, is the lead author on the study, which was pub­lished Wednesday in the Journal of the Academy of Nutri­tion and Dietetics.

At the start of the 2012–13 school year, Mass­a­chu­setts enacted new reg­u­la­tions focused specif­i­cally on com­pet­i­tive foods sold in schools. Com­pet­i­tive foods and bev­er­ages are those sold in vending machines, school stores, and for fundraisers. Hoffman defined them as the foods that “com­pete” with the sale of school meals.

Researchers made three site visits to 74 middle schools and high schools in 37 Mass­a­chu­setts school dis­tricts over an 18-​​month period and cat­a­loged infor­ma­tion on thou­sands of com­pet­i­tive foods, including brand names, pack­aging, and serving size.

Just one year after imple­men­ta­tion, Hoffman’s team found that a majority of com­pet­i­tive foods sold at schools par­tic­i­pating in the study met the state’s new stan­dards, noting the improve­ment in mid­dles schools from 13 per­cent to 69 per­cent, and in high schools from 28 to 80 percent.

It’s easier to make the changes in bev­er­ages because cat­e­gor­i­cally things are com­pliant or not com­pliant,” Hoffman said. “For example,” she added, “the sugar-​​sweetened bev­er­ages are easy to rec­og­nize and eliminate.”

The new Mass­a­chu­setts reg­u­la­tions include allowing the sale of only nonfat or low-​​fat milk as well as foods or bev­er­ages that do not con­tain arti­fi­cial sweet­eners, and offering fruits and veg­eta­bles wher­ever food is sold in schools.

Hoffman noted that schools received no incen­tive from the state to make these changes, adding that there is no finan­cial con­se­quence for non­com­pli­ance. “People in food ser­vices really did want to make improve­ments,” Hoffman said.

Researchers from Har­vard University’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health and Bran­deis University’s Heller School of Social Policy and Man­age­ment also worked on this study.

The paper is the first in the team’s NOURISH study. NOURISH stands for Nutri­tion Oppor­tu­ni­ties to Under­stand Reforms Involving Stu­dent Health. In forth­coming papers the research team will focus on the impact these changes are making on stu­dents’ diets in and out­side of school, and what, if any, finan­cial impli­ca­tions are felt by schools. The study was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.