Despite efforts to limit their availability, public elementary school students in the United States have more outlets to buy unhealthy beverages at school, U.S. researchers said.
Over a three-year period ending in 2009, more students could buy sweetened beverages like sodas, higher-fat milk and sports beverages from vending machines and school stores, they said.
Such drinks are a major source of calories, and removing them from schools could help curb the nation's obesity epidemic.
"Elementary school students are still surrounded by a variety of unhealthy beverages while at school," said Lindsey Turner of the University of Illinois at Chicago, whose study appears in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.
"Sugar-sweetened sodas have been linked to childhood obesity. Because kids spend so much time in school, getting those beverages out of school should be a public health priority in our opinion," Turner said in a telephone interview.
Although U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines say schools should not provide sweetened beverages in government supported cafeteria meals, students can buy these items in vending machines or school stores -- known as competitive venues because they compete with the government meals.
Turner and colleague Frank Chaloupka mailed surveys to U.S. elementary school administrators about the availability of high-calorie beverages for sale in three successive school years through 2008-2009.
They looked beyond the cafeteria to other places that might be supplying children with sugared beverages and they looked at the different types of milk for sale: low-fat, whole and flavored.
Vending Machines, School Stores
During the three years of the study, they said the number of vending machines remained stable, but access to stores or snack bars or a la carte cafeteria lines rose significantly.
By 2009, 61 percent of students could buy high-calorie drinks from vending machines or school stores compared with 49 percent just two years prior.
"What we found was over time there was not a substantial decrease in sugary beverages, which is what we would have hoped to see," Turner said."We also found that school stores become more common, as did a la carte lines in lunch rooms."
Overall, she said 45 percent of public elementary school students could purchase some sort of beverage outside of the government meals program that did not meet national recommendations.
That figure rose to 58 percent of students in private elementary schools, Turner said.
Too much sugar not only makes people fatter, but is also a key culprit in diabetes, heart disease and stroke, according to the American Heart Association.
The association said last year that Americans need to cut back dramatically on sugar consumption.
"I think at this point there still is a discrepancy between what we are actually recommending for children and what they are consuming," Dr. Alice Lichtenstein, a heart and nutrition specialist at Tufts University, said in a telephone interview.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit health advocacy group based in Washington, urged Congress to pass the U.S. lawmakers to pass the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act when it returns for the lame duck session.
That bipartisan bill passed the Senate unanimously in August and includes a provision to get junk food and soda out of schools.