Just released federal data from 2006 show Utah ranks the worst in the nation in the percentage of schools that offer chocolate, other kinds of candy, salty snacks high in fat, and soda or sugary fruit drinks.
One example: The national median of schools with access to chocolate candy is 40 percent, while 83 percent of Utah schools offer such treats.
The data comes from a Centers for Disease Control biennial survey of principals and health education teachers in secondary schools.
Still, the results also showed Utah schools do a better-than-average job of offering healthy drinks, such as low-fat milk and bottled water.
Michael Friedrichs, an epidemiologist in the state Health Department's bureau of health promotion, is most disturbed by the availability of soda. According to the CDC, 86 percent of Utah schools allow students to buy soda or other sugary drinks versus the national median of 63 percent.
Studies have linked pop consumption to childhood obesity. And while a recent study showed childhood obesity rates may have leveled off nationally, it's still a problem: Last year, 9 percent of Utah teens were obese and 12 percent were overweight.
"It's shocking to me," Friedrichs said. "Other states have made progress in cutting [soda] out."
Utah has the most schools that allow the sale of unhealthy foods and drinks during lunch - 81 percent versus 35 percent for the national median.
Luann Shipley, director of child nutrition programs for the state education department, maintains that schools are making progress. By next month, all public and charter schools must have rules about the quality of food sold in vending machines.
Last year, the state school board considered and rejected banning junk food. Instead, it allowed schools to choose to prohibit a variety of foods, including ones with high fat or sugar content, with caffeine or with trans fats, for example.
And by the 2009-10 school year, soda manufacturers such as Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo have voluntarily agreed to remove sodas from elementary and middle schools and sell diet sodas in high schools.
"The days of allowing kids to guzzle down empty calories of sugar, I think most people will agree that's not a good thing," Shipley said.
Still, few schools are willing to cut out junk completely, often citing the needed revenue.
The state health department found its new Power Up program for middle schools couldn't require schools to offer only healthy food outside of meals. The effort is an outgrowth of the Gold Medal School program that encourages healthy environments in elementary schools.
Instead, to reach the gold level, middle schools must ensure one-third of the food available meets healthy food guidelines.
"We wanted to say 100 percent, but the input we got from the schools was that was too big of a change," said Chelsea Hussey, Gold Medal Schools policy coordinator.