School Vending Machines: Harmless Snacks or Health Hazards?

Vending machines can be a convenient way to purchase food and drinks. They are a perfect way to grab a quick snack without having to make a trip to the store. While most people would agree that vending machines are convenient, many would also agree that vending machines do not offer the healthiest choices, especially for younger children.

While parents may do a great job reinforcing healthy eating habits at home, these habits may be a lot more difficult to enforce at school. In addition to vending machines, cafeterias, bake sales, and other venues sell “competitive foods” outside the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) school meal programs. According to a national study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 21% of elementary schools, 62% of middle schools, and 86% of high schools had one or more vending machines, with many schools having school stores, canteens, or snack bars where students can also obtain food or beverages.

In 2007, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) released a report titled Nutrition Standards for Foods in Schools. In this report, the IOM recommended that “if competitive foods are available, they should consist of nutritious fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nonfat or low-fat milk and dairy products.”

For many kids, however, vending machines still pose an irresistible temptation to grab a soft drink and “junk food,” which is high in fats, sugars and calories and low in other nutrients. In a study conducted in Minnesota, out of 13,527 food and beverage items offered in vending machines, less than 5% met the full IOM health criteria. Vending machine foods that meet the IOM criteria for calories and fat include:
– Plain pretzels, baked chips
– Animal crackers, graham crackers, Rice Krispie Treats™
– Most hard candies
– All gummy fruit: fruit leather or gummy animals
– Some fruits snacks

While the occasional unhealthy snack is unlikely to do significant damage, when consumed on a frequent basis, these snacks can contribute to weight gain and obesity. In the past few years several initiatives have been implemented at local, state and national levels to increase healthy food and beverage choices while decreasing the unhealthy ones. But not all states are equal in their efforts to decrease unhealthy food in schools. By 2007, only 30 states had adopted standards for competitive food/beverages in schools, and only 12 had set nutrition standards for the entire school day and campus. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has graded each state’s school nutrition policies regarding competitive foods. CSPI’s highest grade of an A- went to only two states, suggesting that there is much more work to be done.

So how can you help your children eat healthier at school? Here’s where you can start:

1. Educate your kids on healthy food and beverage choices. Although kids may not always listen to parental advice, one study has shown that children whose parents limit them to 1 soft drink per day were significantly less likely to purchase soft drinks from school vending machines or consume soft drinks. For more information on healthy weight and eating, visit the Center for Disease Control’s website: http://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/index.html

2 Eat healthier at home. Without an example of healthy eating at home, it can be harder for kids to choose healthier options at school when parents are not around. You can find specific nutritional information at the USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference (http://ndb.nal.usda.gov), Self Nutrition Data (http://nutritiondata.self.com/), or specific product websites.

3. Make healthier choices more visible at school. One way to make it easier for kids to choose healthier items is to mark them with a special symbol. For example, vending items can be marked with a Red Heart sticker as an indicator that they meet the IOM’s criteria. Many of the newer vending machines have electronic displays that provide nutritional information. To find a list of healthy commercial food products, check out the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Product Navigator: https://schools.healthiergeneration.org/resources__tools/school_meals/product_navigator/.

4. Get involved with your school’s food and beverage options. Many food and beverage distributors are willing to work with schools to provide healthier choices for students. Though some may worry about the possible lost revenue due to healthier food options that do not sell, several schools have found ways to compensate for the losses or even to make a profit on healthier foods items. See CSPI’s National Nutrition Project Schools Foods Tool Kit available at: http://www.cspinet.org/schoolfoodkit/school_foods_kit_part3.pdf for more information.

5. Get involved at a local, state or national level. There is still much more work to be done! Let your creativity and passion guide you to advocate for your kids to your local school board.

This post was written with Drew Lee, 4th year Medical Student, Loyola University Chicago
Bibliography:

1. Institute of Medicine. Nutritional Standards for Foods in Schools: Leading the Way Toward Healthier Youth. Washington, DC: National Academies Press; 2007. Available at: http://www.ihttp://www.iom.edu/~/media/Files/Report%20Files/2007/Nutrition-Standards-for-Foods-in-Schools-Leading-the-Way-toward-Healthier-Youth/FoodinSchools.pdfom.edu/~/media/Files/Report%20Files/2007/Nutrition-Standards-for-Foods-in-Schools-Leading-the-Way-toward-Healthier-Youth/FoodinSchools.pdf.

2. O’Toole TP, Anderson S, Miller C, Guthrie J. Nutrition services and foods and beverages available at school: results from the School Health Policies and Programs Study 2006. J Sch Health. 2007;77:500-521.

3. Pasch KE, Lytle LA, Samuelson AC, Farbakhsh K, Kubik MY, Patnode CD. Are School Vending Machines Loaded with Calories and Fat: An Assessment of 106 Middle and High Schools. J Sch Health. 2011;81:212-218.

4. Kubik M, Lytle L, Hannan P, Perry C, Story M. The association of the school food environment with dietary behaviors of young adolescents. Am J Public Health. 2003;93(7):1168-1173.

5. Terry-McElrath Y, O’Malley P, Delva J, Johnston L. The school food environment and student body mass index and food consumption: 2004 to 2007 national data. J Adolesc Health. 2009;3(Suppl 1):S45-S56.

6. Wootan MG, Henry H, Roberts D, Johanson J. State School Foods Report Card 2007. Washington, DC: Center for Science in the Public Interest; 2007. Available at: http://www.cspinet.org/2007schoolreport.pdf.

7. Nickelson J, Roseman MG, Melinda SF. Associations between parental limits, school vending machine purchases, and soft drink consumption among Kentucky middle school students. J Nutr Educ Behav. 2010;42:115-122.

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