Three-quarters of middle schools have vending machines where snacks and sugared drinks are sold, a new study finds. The research demonstrates that there are vending machines in most middle schools, and “that those vending machines don’t always have the healthiest choices,” said study author Amy Virus, a registered dietitian with the Center for Obesity Research and Education at Temple University in Philadelphia.
HealthDay News is reporting the results come from a nationwide sample of 42 middle schools, and researchers discovered that most of these vending machines offer food and beverage choices that contain as much as 320 calories an item.
In a nation where one out of three children is considered overweight, these added calories put children at risk for obesity and type 2 diabetes.
Middle school students are at particular risk, because they are going through puberty, their physical activity and dietary habits are fluctuating, and they are increasingly responsible for any behavior changes.
At the schools surveyed, the majority of vending machines contained sugar-added drinks such as soda, Gatorade and iced tea. The drinks contained anywhere from 60 calories to 320 calories. Fruit juices also found in the machines averaged 140 calories to 320 calories.
It is a misconception that 100 percent fruit juice is a healthy snack choice. Amy Virus explains, “Although juice can fit into a meal, drinking excess juice outside a meal gives you the extra calories.”
In my book, SuperSized Kids: How to Protect Your Child from the Obesity Threat, I wrote an entire chapter on how parents can improve nutrition and physical education in their kid’s school.
Here’s what I wrote about vending machines:
Meet with Vending Machine Decision-Makers
In some schools, school administrators manage the vending machine program; in others, someone else runs the program. Whoever it is, schedule a time to talk with that person to determine his or her view of the food offered at the school.
Whoever runs the vending machine program should be involved in the process. If they fear that a change to healthier options will cause them to lose money, they will resist the change.
We have examples ofhealthful food vending machines at our Web site.
Be Prepared for Objections
“Kids won’t eat healthful foods.” This is the most common objection, and not just from school ofﬁcials but from parents as well. More often than not, however, we ﬁnd that children just haven’t been given healthful food choices.
Most parents ﬁnd that once a child tries something, he or she likes it. As long as the food tastes good, most kids will eat it.
In San Diego County a school that had been selling candy, chips, and soda wanted to become a “junk-food-free school.”
Students helped administrators select healthier vending machine products. The result was vending machines ﬁlled with bagels and cream cheese, yogurt, fresh fruit, trail mix, cheese and crackers, and fruit bars. Soda was restricted to 20 percent of the vending slots.
During its ﬁrst year of operation the vending machine brought the school $200,000 more in sales and nearly $15,000 in commissions (compared to $9,000 under the old contract).
This solution strengthened the budget and also improved the way kids ate.
“Kids won’t exercise.” Here again, more often than not we ﬁnd that children just haven’t been given healthy and fun activity choices.
Most parents and schools ﬁnd that once a child tries a fun activity, he or she likes it.Most kids have no objection to doing a fun activity.
In Toccoa, Georgia, teachers at the Friendship Elementary School began the Fit Kids Club. Guidance counselor Linda Hinson says many of the kids in the school are obese and have high blood pressure. The teachers wanted to help the kids.
Soon after the club’s formation, twenty-ﬁve ﬁfth graders gave up their recess to exercise. Vital signs are taken at the start and end of the program.
Each kid in the Fit Kids Club has his or her name posted on a chart. Every day that the kids come, they get a star beside their name. And once they come for ten days, they get a prize; the more they come, the more prizes they get.
But for most of the children the real prize is the exercise. The kids come for many different reasons, but they all seem to agree on one reason: It’s fun!
“It’s too expensive to serve more healthful foods in schools.” In thelong run the medical expenses of overweight and obese children will far outweigh any expense we might put into providing better food choices for them now. The surgeon general’s 2001 report on overweight and obesity put annual obesity-related health care costs at$117 billion nationwide.
“It’s too expensive to provide physical education in schools.” As with poor nutrition, the long-term medical expenses of overweight and obese children will far outweigh any expense we might incur by providing fun physical activity now.
Moreover, not providing physical education may negatively affect our children’s school performance and standardized test scores.
Boys, incidentally, are far more negatively affected by not being able to release some physical energy than are girls.
“We need the revenue from selling soda and junk food.” Healthful foods can actually earn money.
At the North Community High School in Minneapolis, for example, the district worked with a soft drink representative to increase the number of machines stocked with water or 100 percent fruit and vegetable juices. They limited soda to one machine, with limited hours of sale.
They also instituted a competitive pricing system,s elling water for 75 cents, sports drinks and 100 percent fruit and vegetable juices for $1, and soda and fruit drinks for $1.25.
The water machines were strategically placed in high-trafﬁc areas, and students were permitted to drink water in the classroom. What happened? Soda sales went down—but vending proﬁts increased by almost $4,000.
The total number of cases of beverages more than doubled from the previous school year, with water becoming the best seller.
Whiteﬁsh Middle School in Whiteﬁsh, Montana, switched vending machines from sodapop and candy to 100 percent fruit juice, water, and healthy snacks.
Before the switch, six to eight kids a day received disciplinary referrals immediately after lunch. Since the switch, only one to two referrals occur a week. School ofﬁcials give credit for the change in behavior to the elimination of so much sugar and caffeine in the students’ diets.
While gross income has declined, net income has not. A postscript: The school recently purchased its own cold vending machine to sell bagels, nonfatmilk, and yogurt.
In addition, schools could aim to meet some or all of the following national recommendations:
• All food served or sold on the school property (including food sold by the school, through vending machines, and by outside and student sales) should meet a nutritional standard established by the school system.
• Vending machines accessible to students should not dispense sodas, drinks that contain caffeine or a high concentration of sugar, candy, or similar products. The Los Angeles Uniﬁed School District, for example, restricts drinks to “fruit based drinks that are composed of no less than 50 percent fruit juices and have no added sweeteners; drinking water; milk, including, but not limited to, chocolate milk, soy milk, rice milk, and other similar dairy or nondairy milk; and electrolyte replacement beverages and vitamin waters that do not contain more than 42 grams of added sweetener per 20 ounce serving.”
• School districts should control all vending machines on their property and should determine the vendors, numbers of machines at each school, their locations, contents, and hours of operation.
• Contracts with vending companies should forbid advertising of food or drink.
• School systems should work to increase the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables by, for example, establishing salad bars and serving salad shakers (salad and dressing inside a closed plastic container that allows the student to “shake” the
• salad so it will mix with the dressing) as part of the school lunch program.
• School systems should work to increase the consumption of whole grain foods and snacks.
In another chapter of the book, I write:
IT’S TIME TO JUNK JUNK FOOD AT SCHOOLS
As we were writing this book, state legislatures across the United States were considering measures that would wage an attack on junk food in vending machines at their public schools.
There are at least twenty-eight states considering such legislation, and at least ﬁve other states have imposed restrictions on the snacks students can buy, according to the National Council of State Legislatures.
Why? It’s simple. More than three quarters of the snacks and drinks sold in school vending machines have poor to no nutritional value—and most are actually unhealthy.
These states are examining ways to encourage healthy vending machine choices at school. One of the more popular options is to empty those machines of sugary soft drinks and high-calorie snacks and replace them with healthy choices.
As we’ve discussed earlier, surveys show healthy snacks generate just as much money for schools.
Nevertheless, many times local school boards are uncomfortable making this type of change and we feel it is reasonable for state legislators, with the support of those who love and care for kids, to step up to bat and require vendors to put nothing but healthy snacks in machines at public schools.
To see a lengthy list of likely objections to our proposal, check our Web site. But here we’d like to dispense with just two:
“It is not the job ofthe state legislatures or school boards to determine what kids eat; that is the role ofparents.”
While this responsibility does belong primarily to parents, it becomes everyone’s responsibility when children eat meals away from home.
States and schools must create the best possible learning environment for students. Healthy children grow into a productive workforce, with dietary habits that can last a lifetime.
Good nutrition helps a student’s academic achievement.
A study by the Tufts University Center on Hunger, Poverty and Nutrition Policy reported a link between inadequate nutrition during childhood and cognitive development and productivity in adulthood.
Findings also examined the impact that undernourishment has on the children’s behavior, their school performance, and their ability to concentrate and complete tasks.
Similarly, when children eat a well-balanced meal, such as a school breakfast, they have higher sustained energy levels than children who select foods from only one or two food groups, which are often high in sugar or fat.
“We do not believe in state mandates to local schools.”
“Local control” in education is a powerful argument for many people. Legislators may say that they oppose issuing state mandates to local schools.
This is a health issue, however, much like the asbestos threat that surfaced in schools several years ago. All children need to be protected from the health threat of unlimited availability of high-fat, high-sugar food in their schools.
Many states invest signiﬁcant resources in administering the federal breakfast and lunch programs, creating good nutrition environments, and implementing nutrition curricula.
This investment is jeopardized by the increased availability of junk food in schools.
The state also picks up much of the tab for the millions annually spent on treating obesity-related illnesses. And that’s something we must tackle immediately.
Concerning this new study, it’s good news that these findings are just a small part of a larger study aimed at reducing obesity in middle school students. The next step will be to eliminate 100 percent fruit juice from these schools’ vending machines, change snack and desert foods to 200 calories or less, and change chips to reduced fat or baked snacks. More water will be placed in the machines if recommendations are followed.
But these steps may not be enough, according to Roberta H. Anding, a clinical dietitian at Texas Children’s Hospital. The 300-calorie-a-day increase in children’s diets since the 1970s comes from more refined carbohydrates and fats, she said. Schools need to make the right choices to implement these changes.
“If the focus is just on calories, it might give a stamp of approval to a reduced-calorie snack that is trans fat- and white flour-rich”, she said. “Research suggests that those who eat whole grains instead of highly processed food decrease the risk of diabetes. These whole grains are rich in magnesium, which also is protective against diabetes.”
The number of vending machines in schools has doubled since the 1990s, Virus noted.
“If a child has a dollar in their pocket or a dollar and twenty-five cents, they want to spend it,” she said. “If they can only choose from healthy products, hopefully, we’ll see a difference in their risk factors for obesity and type 2 diabetes.”
SOURCES: Roberta Anding, M.S., R.D., L.D., C.D.E., clinical dietitian, Adolescent Medicine and Sports Medicine clinics, Texas Children’s Hospital, national spokesman, American Dietetic Association, and sports dietitian, Houston Texans NFL franchise; Amy Virus, R.D., L.D.N., research dietitian, Center for Obesity Research and Education, School of Medicine, Temple University, Philadelphia; Oct. 6, 2008, presentation, Obesity Society annual meeting, Phoenix