School Food Unwrapped

Washington, DC— Higher-income fifth grade students in suburban school districts are no more likely to have access to healthy or unhealthy foods than are their lower-income, urban peers, according to a new Child Trends study. However, schools attended by higher-income students offer their students a greater selection of both healthy and unhealthy food choices.  School Food Unwrapped: What’s Available and What Our Kids Actually Are Eating examines the prevalence of vending machines, school stores, and other outlets in elementary schools that often provide non-nutritious foods, the types of food and beverages sold within these outlets, and student consumption of food at school among a nationally representative sample of fifth-grade students.


Among the study’s findings:

  • More than half (57.2 percent) of elementary schools report that students can purchase food or beverages through a “competitive outlet”—vending machines, à la carte items in cafeterias, or school snack bars that offer food that does not have to meet federal nutrition standards.

    • The availability of these competitive outlets does not differ by urbanicity, public or private school status, participation in school breakfast or lunch programs, or receipt of Title I funds.

  • Several school characteristics are significantly associated with the number of healthy and unhealthy food choices available through competitive food outlets.
    • Suburban elementary schools offer more healthy and more unhealthy food than urban schools; the same is true for schools with lower minority populations compared with higher minority populations, and schools that do not receive Title I funding compared with those that do receive this funding.

  • Competitive foods (not part of the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs) are available in most schools, and as many of one in four children reports buying unhealthy competitive foods.

    • Among fifth grade students, 26 percent reported purchasing sweets in school in the past week, 17 percent reported purchasing salty snacks in school, and 13 percent reported purchasing sodas or sports drinks in school.

  • Contrary to popular belief, most of these purchases are made in school cafeterias rather than from vending machines.
    • Among students who purchased unhealthy foods, a majority of sweets (77 percent) and salty snacks (73 percent) purchased in school came from school cafeterias. 

“Previous studies on school food policies concentrated on schools that serve low-income students, but our analyses suggest that changes in these policies should be directed at all schools,” says Elizabeth Hair, Ph.D., lead author of the report.  “Our findings also suggest that efforts to change school food policies should examine all cafeteria offerings in addition to vending machines.”


Data for this study were drawn from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Cohort (ECLS-K), a nationally representative sample of children from kindergarten entry in 1998 through fifth grade in 2004.


Child Trends is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research center that studies children at all stages of development. Its mission is to improve outcomes for children by providing research, data, and analysis to the people and institutions whose decisions and actions affect children.