If You Don’t Sell It, Fewer Will Eat It: The Effectiveness of California’s Curbs on In-School Junk Food

A school store "lunch"

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.

[Emphasis mine]

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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  1. Orsen W. says

    The sooner we install a strict food police state, the better. Temptation will then be banished forever! You will be told what you may eat, how much and when. Your nutritive allotment will be precisely rationed in accordance with your socioeconomic status and prevailing boutique food fads. Then there will never again be a fat Californian of Hispanic heritage. The world will be perfect and simply delightful!

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Love all the snark, Orsen W. but now that you’ve gotten it out of your system, please consider leaving a constructive comment that actually advances the ball. Comments are never censored here for offering an opposing point of view, but people who feel the need to be needling or snide, in a way that makes everyone else less willing to share ideas, won’t see their comments appear here.

    • Richard Pilkington says

      The family unit is a totalitarian state. It is parents and guardians duty to protect children who can’t protect themselves. They test to expand the boundaries, you define and relent the borders.

      “we have to have nutrition education, across the board, …which says to a kid, ‘You can have a fizzy drink once or twice a week, that’s a treat, that’s just fine. But, nobody asked you to have a fizzy drink three times a day.’ ”
      — Indra Nooyi, Chairman and CEO, PepsiCo.
      BBC World Service Interview, First broadcast 21st March 2008

      • says

        …except for those families who decide (for whatever reason) not to let their younglings consume fizzy drinks. The problem is that expecting children to resist peer pressure in the elementary schools is totally unrealistic. Especially when (a) the stuff is all around them, (b) when everyone else is partaking, and/or (c) when a person in authority (say, a teacher) gives the stuff to them.


  2. says

    Oren, please, with all due respect: Give me a break. This is not about a “police state” or wanting people to march in lockstep. This is about a very simple principle that many people have found to be true in their own homes: If you have a bunch of junk food lying around, you’re gonna eat it. Especially if you’re a teenager, because teens are not known for their spectacular self-restraint and rational decision-making skills. Why should we make schools, which exist to educate our children, into places that ALSO offer up a whole range of opportunities to mindlessly snack? What value does that add? If you can show me how offering junk food in schools makes the overall educational experience richer, or how the educational experience suffers when junk food is not widely available, then I’m all ears. But if it adds nothing…and in fact, may detract from areas of the students’ well-being…then it doesn’t belong in the schools. People can eat their chips and candy and soda at home if they choose, or go to the convenience store.

  3. says

    New reader, but I absolutely agree with you on this one. When I was in school (I’m in my twenties, so not THAT long ago), I am ashamed to admit that I would use my lunch money ($2 for hot lunch) to buy snacks instead (4 bags of chips and/or ice cream bars at 50 cents a pop). I never went off campus to get food, though I suppose I easily could have; it was simply because it was there and an option.

    Yes, I cringe when I remember that :)

  4. says

    Funyuns for breakfast? Flaming Chee-tos and nacho cheese sauce for lunch? Jeez Louise, I now feel like I had a deprived childhood – all I had in high school was fried griddle cakes made with corn meal, stuffed with ham and cheese.

    (They are called “arepas”; Venezuelan variety. Yummy. I used to eat two of them a day. I miss them. And no, I really can’t fathom a diet like the one I described above.)


  5. Katherine says

    Oh, Bettina, Sing it Sister! I have never understood why sodas, junk food, ice creams, and candy are ever offered on school campuses either for fundraising or “choice”. Am no food nazi, but have been a teacher & a volunteer in the cafeteria long enough to see that carefully packed healthy lunches & even the minimally standard nutritive valued school lunch tray offerings are both NEGATED by kids “choosing” to fill up on the empty calories in shiny packages. (Impact on kids’ behavior and mood is another post entirely). While the parents are ignorant at home, blissfully unaware of their child’s true diet. Am all for choice, but not sabotage! Schools can spend $ on health classes for high schoolers and the First Lady can raise all the awareness she wants, but when elementary and middle schools are the front line of providers of unhealthy foods – the paradox is frustrating and tragic.


  1. […] If You Don’t Sell It, Fewer Will Eat It: The Effectiveness of California’s Curbs on In-School Ju… — Bettina Elias Seigel, The Lunch Tray Does not allowing schools to sell junk food mean students will compensate for lost calories at home, or will they just eat less junk food?  This is the question at the heart of Seigel’s post, where she takes into account the findings of a recent study on the topic.  […]

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