I was recently in touch with a mom who works regularly in the school store at her kids’ high school. The store sells some of the worst junk foods — Funyuns, candy, sodas, etc. — which she often sees the kids grabbing in large quantities for breakfast or lunch. But one of the ways the school justifies the practice (besides the huge amount of money brought in by junk food sales) is that these kids “would just go off campus and get the same foods anyway.”
I believe that schools should not be in the business of supplying junk foods to kids. Period. And while I don’t dismiss the desperate need of cash-squeezed schools to make up budget shortfalls, doing so at the expense of student health is, in my opinion, morally wrong; there has to be another way. But many schools, especially high schools, do take this position of: ”Hey, if we don’t sell it to them, someone else will.”
That’s why I was especially interested in a study which came out yesterday evaluating the effect of the nutritional requirements imposed by California on its schools’ “competitive food,” i.e., food sold in places like vending machines, school stores and cafeteria snack bars, all in competition with the federal school meal. According to the New York Times Well blog:
The study found that California high school students consumed on average nearly 160 calories fewer per day than students in other states, the equivalent of cutting out a small bag of potato chips. That difference came largely from reduced calorie consumption at school, and there was no evidence that students were compensating for their limited access to junk food at school by eating more at home.
The study, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, compared the eating habits of California high schoolers to kids in fourteen other states that had no nutrition standards for competitive food. Again, according to the Well blog, it found that:
California students had the lowest daily intake of calories, fat and, especially, added sugars. And it seemed clear that their eating behaviors at school played a large role. California students got a lower proportion of their daily calories from school foods than students in other states: about 21.5 percent, compared with 28.4 percent among students elsewhere.
The reductions in fat, sugar and calorie consumption among Hispanic students “are particularly encouraging given the high prevalence of youth obesity among Hispanic individuals in California and the United States over all,” the authors wrote. “It is also encouraging in light of research that documented the high presence of convenience stores, mobile food vendors and other food outlets surrounding schools in Hispanic communities.”
In the end, it just seems like common sense. When my pantry is full of chips and cookies, I tend to eat those foods because they’re readily available. When I keep those foods out of my pantry and would have to expend some extra effort to go get them, I tend to eat fewer of those foods. So why are we making it incredibly easy for kids to eat the very worst junk foods at school?
The good news is, new federal guidelines (to be released for comment later this year) will improve nutritional standards for competitive foods nationwide. While I remain pessimistic about what those rules will look like after industry lobbying (more on that in a future post), at the very least they should put a stop to a school-supplied breakfast of Funyons.
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