Early on a Tuesday morning, while walking the halls of Winter Hill Elementary School in Somerville, Massachusetts, I was struck by the absence of an item that has become nearly ubiquitous in schools across Massachusetts: vending machines. Vending machines are the most convenient source of exactly what you tell your kids not to eat.
To my pleasure, Winter Hill is not unique – vending machines are banned in every elementary, middle, and high school in Somerville.
An outright ban on vending machines in an effort to promote kids’ health and combat obesity is considered extreme even among many dieticians and public health advocates. Many school districts do not support vending bans, because the machines often fund popular student organizations or athletic departments. So, banning vending would require these organizations to find alternate sources of revenue or cut back on activities.
The tradeoff between funding student activities and promoting kids’ health is not trivial. Vending machines are one of the most common sources of junk foods in schools; nearly all high schools have them. The most popular products have been found to replace healthier, nutrient-rich foods in kids’ diets, and contribute to weight gain, mostly through consumption of sugar and fat.
Imagine inverting the food pyramid – placing fruits and vegetables in a teeny-tiny triangle at the top and spreading fat and sugar along the bottom – and that is a vending machine dietary paradigm. Many schools in Massachusetts recognize the disconnect between what we teach kids to eat and what they have access to at school. As a result, schools have started replacing junk food with healthier choices, rather than banning all sources of food sold outside of breakfast or lunch.
In two years, the percentage of Massachusetts’s secondary schools that prohibit the sale of sodas increased from 63% in 2006 to 81% in 2008, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Several school districts in the greater Boston area, including Boston, Brookline, and Cambridge, ban the sale of soda in schools. Yet, in many schools sodas have been merely replaced with beverages that rival it in calories and sugar. Some of these “healthier” items have the illusion of being good for you, too. So-called “vitamin” water epitomizes the phenomenon, as do sports drinks.
Milton Public Schools, located south of Boston, replaced sugary drinks with unflavored bottled water and seltzer flavored with 100% fruit juice in all vending machines in middle and high schools. According to Jackie Morgan, Milton’s food service director, kids keep on purchasing the vending beverages. “You can make the same profit off of a bottle of water as you can other beverages," says Morgan.
Similarly, Lawrence Public Schools, a large, urban district in northwest Massachusetts, replaced all their sugary drinks with bottled water and actually found that vending profits increased by $100 per month due to lower product costs.
Across the country, evidence is mounting that selling healthy food in place of junk food will not reduce vending revenue. A study of 17 schools by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the CDC found that 12 schools actually had revenue increase after switching to healthier products, 4 reported no change.
But this begs the question: are these “healthier” choices really healthy? The switch from sugary drinks to bottled water seems to indicate that the answer is yes. But what about vending snacks?
The proliferation of baked chips and reformulated cookies may be one reason why vending revenue isn’t affected by substituting healthier products. Kids still eat them because the food industry has made sure that they taste good.
Let’s be real: schools aren’t replacing candy with carrot sticks. The healthier snacks have the same addictive properties – cheesy, sweet, salty – as their predecessors, although they are usually sold in smaller packages and have fewer calories and fat.
Several years ago, when Jackie Morgan started aligning food sold in Milton schools with the nutrition guidelines promoted by Action for Healthy Kids, a national nonprofit fighting childhood obesity, she had only a few distributors and products to choose from. Now, the list of products – published in the A(cceptable)-List by the John C. Stalker Institute – is 63 pages long!
Does it come as any surprise that Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and Cinnamon Blast Cookies make the A-list?
It only takes an excess of 110-165 calories to contribute to overweight and obesity among children, according to a study published by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health. That’s the equivalent of a can of soda or fruit punch, a small bag of chips or a cookie. A close look at the A-list items, and it’s clear that many products promoted meet or exceed this threshold.
While getting traditional junk foods at of schools is still a formidable challenge, the next wave of junk food wars will likely be waged over those products are currently considered “healthier.”
There’s a narrow possibility of passing State legislation to set stricter nutrition guidelines for foods sold in vending machines and in other school venues, but no legislation that bans vending has been given serious consideration. That tough decision will be left to schools and the communities they serve.
In Somerville, where vending is banned and the school food environment from cafeteria to classroom is being gradually transformed, this is one battle that’s already been won.