Junk food in schools

Vending machine sales at the expense of student health?

Editor’s Note:  Beth Barker was a high school senior in Franklin, Tenn., when this column was written in 2003.

Beth Barker
Published: July, 2003

Beth Barker at Franklin High School in Franklin, Tenn.
Photo by Anne Rayner
Schools nationwide are packed with vending machines that provide schools with extra funding. These machines are often stocked full of sugary sweets at the expense of students’ health.

Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group in Washington, D.C., recently told ABC News, “Our society should be doing everything possible to encourage kids to eat healthy diets, and what are we doing? We are bombarding them with junk food advertising. We are putting junk food wherever they go.”

Two years ago, researchers at Children’s Hospital Boston and the Harvard School of Public Health reported that children who drink a lot of sugar-sweetened beverages are at higher risk of becoming obese. Obesity, in turn, can lead to heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.

Soft drinks are not the only problem. Gary Tanksley, a health science education teacher at Franklin High School in Franklin, Tenn., believes that vending machines – and the junk food they contain – should be taken out of schools. “They are detrimental to students’ health and are contrary to the health lessons kids should be learning,” he says.

School officials respond that they depend on vending machine revenue to supplement the budget they get from the county. “These vending machines bring a fixed sum of about $50,000 to (Franklin High) yearly,” says assistant principal Todd Campbell. “Without the vending machines, the school would lack needed funds.”

Other schools are reevaluating their views on vending machines.

Last year in nearby Nashville, the public school board voted to limit availability of foods of “minimal nutritional value” in vending machines. Los Angeles public schools are phasing out the sale of carbonated drinks loaded with sugar, and public schools along the upper Mississippi in Iowa and Illinois recently installed dairy-only vending machines stocked with milk, yogurt and cheese to encourage healthier snacking habits.

Financial pressures can make it difficult for schools – and states -- to break the vending machine habit, however. California recently passed a law that mandates healthier snack foods in school vending machines, but it won’t take effect unless additional funds for free and reduced-price meals are appropriated by the end of this year.

At Franklin High, there are more than 45 vending machines serving about 1,650 students. The only non-sugary options they offer are water and PowerAde.

The machines are supposed to be turned off during the lunch hours, but that policy is often ignored. As a result, many students are diverted from healthier food choices in the cafeteria. “Our cafeteria has a good variety of healthy items for students,” cafeteria manager Linda Jones says. “Vending machines hurt our business desperately.”

Franklin High’s athletic director, Kathy Caudill, has a different view. “Athletes need to eat to maintain energy at the end of the day,” she says. “With a bit of searching, (they) can find an appropriate snack food in the vending machines.”

Athletes are often active enough to burn off the calories from snack foods, but many non-athletic students also indulge themselves with the plethora of snack choices. Candy is being purchased from the machines every period of the day, Tanksley says.

If vending machines are a necessary evil to supplement funds not provided through “free public education,” they should at least be stocked with healthier options like power bars, bananas, orange juice and milk.

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