STUDY: 65-70% of American Classrooms Allow Candy For Teaching and Rewards (And What to Do About It)

by Bettina Elias Siegel on April 12, 2013

With the closing of USDA’s period for public comment on the new proposed competitive food rules, we’ve had a lot of discussion here about the food and beverages offered to school kids via vending machines, school stores, and cafeteria snack bar or “a la carte” lines.

But what about the many other ways in which kids have access to junk food at school, such as classroom rewards, school fundraisers and class parties?  Those avenues are not going to be regulated by the new rules, but a disturbing new report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation‘s Bridging the Gap research program indicates that they are just as problematic.

It's sad how often I have an occasion to use this stock photo!

It’s sad how often I have an occasion to use this stock photo!

Using data from surveys of nationally representative samples of U.S. public elementary schools between 2009 and 2012, the study found that the majority of respondents had “no school-wide restrictions on teachers using candy in classroom lessons, offering sugary items (e.g., candy) as reward for good student behavior or academics, or offering coupons or incentive programs (e.g., pizza parties for reading).”  Similarly, few schools limited the sharing of sugary items for parties or birthday celebrations.  Specifically, the study found that almost 70% of schools allowed candy to be used in lessons, 67.9% allowed the use of food coupons as incentives, and 64.6% allowed the use of candy as a reward.  60.6% had no nutritional requirements for the food sold in fundraisers and 57% had no limits on sugary items for birthday or holiday parties.

Why is this important?  Because the study also found that in 2004-05, 29% of elementary school kids consumed competitive food on a typical day but the most common sources of this food were not vending machines or the cafeteria, but rather “fundraisers, parties, and rewards or other classroom activities.”

So while USDA’s proposed rules are a big leap forward in cleaning up our schools’ food environment, it’s important to remember that they only take us so far.  It falls to the states and individual school districts to impose policies to reach these other, common sources of junk food in a child’s school day.  That’s why I’m so pleased that the new Houston ISD wellness policy, currently being drafted by our School Health Advisory Council, will directly address the use of food as a classroom reward (as well the equally distressing use of exercise as a punishment.)

But wellness policies alone can’t change school cultures.  We also need the collective will of the individual parents and teachers who are “on the ground” at schools each day to “unjunk” our classrooms. Fortunately, there are a lot of great resources out there to help us in that effort.  KY Healthy Kids has a useful list of medical organizations which discourage the use of food rewards, a list which may carry weight with your child’s principal or teacher.  My own Food in the Classroom Manifesto lists ten important reasons why classrooms should be food-free.  (A clean, easily copied Word version — no fancy “parchment” background — can be downloaded here.)  The awesome Rudd ‘Roots Parents website, run by the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, has loads of additional information and guidance for parents to draw upon, as does the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the many other sites in my list of parent resources to the right of this post.

Kids spend the vast majority of their waking life at school and the food they encounter there does matter.  It matters on a purely nutritional level, of course, but it also matters on an educational level.  Whatever nutritional education a child is receiving at school is irrevocably undercut when a teacher passes out candy or fast food restaurant coupons for good performance, or when the school turns a blind eye (or in some cases encourages) fundraising tables heaped with donuts or other junk food.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act has made great strides in improving school meals and, we hope, competitive foods sold on campus.  Now let’s work together to try to improve this last piece of the school food puzzle.

[Editorial update (4/12/13, 4:30pm CST): After looking at my headline again, I decided to change “use” to “allow” as that’s a more accurate reflection of the study’s findings.]

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Casey April 12, 2013 at 1:14 pm

Thank you for sharing my list of medical organizations that recommend not using food as a reward. This practice undermines children developing a healthy relationship with food. It’s good to see more research on this topic.

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Sylvie April 13, 2013 at 8:23 am

When did this happen? I went to different schools in different states and never saw this. But I’m middle-aged now, I guess. Our culture is in trouble if motivation is all external and based on candy, et al when people are children. There’s no where to go from there .

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Bettina Elias Siegel April 16, 2013 at 9:39 am

Sylvie: I agree completely. It seems like internal motivators are being replaced by external rewards far too often.

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bw1 April 16, 2013 at 11:49 am

This didn’t happen when many of us were in school because schools had wider options for reinforcement. They had a spectrum of negative reinforcement options up to and including corporal punishment. Now they dare not look sideways at a child, so it all must be positive reinforcement. Combined with the cult of self esteem, this makes for classrooms full of kids whose mental abstraction skills are so week that the only positive reinforcement they understand is at the basal animal level – i.e. food.

My mother in law teaches first grade in a school where 90% of her class is third generation “babies having babies” – most of them are brought to school by grandmothers under 35. They’re completely unsocialized, and the only tools she’s ALLOWED to use that registers with them are candy rewards

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C baker April 24, 2013 at 1:52 pm

Interesting fact: punishment is not the same as “negative reinforcement”. Negative and positive are used in the sense of removing a stimulus or taking it away, not in the sense of unpleasant and pleasant.

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Nicole H April 16, 2013 at 3:04 pm

My children’s school does not allow “birthday treats” which is a huge step, but I pull candy wrappers out of the dryer every week. I stopped sending $ with my son to school to deposit with the local bank who comes once a week because they give candybars to kids who deposit. When I emailed the director of my girls’ dance company and asked her to consider making dance class a healthier place and limiting candy, I received a guarded response that said I was the only one who had complained. I believe parents need to speak up more often, but I find myself being passive-agressive so I’m not labeled as “that mom.” Candy is main-stream!

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Stephanie September 20, 2014 at 12:59 pm

I so appreciate your blog on food rewards. I’m struggling having recently entered a school system that in 3 weeks has shown us food as reward is around every corner. I’m hoping you have some great strategies for approaching teachers and school administrations about this issue. I’m hesitant to become “that mom” who resists fundraising programs, rejects commercially driven projects/grants, etc. But especially as the first of my kids enters the district if I can play the situation effectively, there is so much more opportunity for change than if I am immediately pinned as the problem parent. I’m crossing my fingers you have ideas!! Many thanks. Your work and research is fortifying to my argument so I’m already ahead having found your blog!

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Bettina Elias Siegel September 20, 2014 at 5:57 pm

Stephanie: Thanks so much for being a TLT reader and I’m glad the blog has been helpful. In a funny coincidence, I’m in the middle of a post on exactly the topic you raise here. After I post it, I’ll include the link here as well.

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