Background: Schools are important settings for the promotion of a healthy diet and sufficient physical activity and thus overweight prevention.
Objective: To assess differences in school nutrition environment and body mass index (BMI) in primary schools between and within 12 European countries.
Methods: Data from the World Health Organization (WHO) European Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative (COSI) were used (1831 and 2045 schools in 2007/2008 and 2009/2010, respectively). School personnel provided information on 18 school environmental characteristics on nutrition and physical activity. A school nutrition environment score was calculated using five nutrition-related characteristics whereby higher scores correspond to higher support for a healthy school nutrition environment. Trained field workers measured children's weight and height; BMI-for-age (BMI/A) Z-scores were computed using the 2007 WHO growth reference and, for each school, the mean of the children's BMI/A Z-scores was calculated.
Results: Large between-country differences were found in the availability of food items on the premises (e.g., fresh fruit could be obtained in 12%-95% of schools) and school nutrition environment scores (range: 0.30-0.93). Low-score countries (Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Latvia and Lithuania) graded less than three characteristics as supportive. High-score (≥0.70) countries were Ireland, Malta, Norway, Portugal, Slovenia and Sweden. The combined absence of cold drinks containing sugar, sweet snacks and salted snacks were more observed in high-score countries than in low-score countries. Largest within-country school nutrition environment scores were found in Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Latvia and Lithuania. All country-level BMI/A Z-scores were positive (range: 0.20-1.02), indicating higher BMI values than the 2007 WHO growth reference. With the exception of Norway and Sweden, a country-specific association between the school nutrition environment score and the school BMI/A Z-score was not observed.
Conclusions: Some European countries have implemented more school policies that are supportive to a healthy nutrition environment than others. However, most countries with low school nutrition environment scores also host schools with supportive school environment policies, suggesting that a uniform school policy to tackle the "unhealthy" school nutrition environment has not been implemented at the same level throughout a country and may underline the need for harmonized school policies.