School Food Interventions

[children reaching for salads at school cafeteria]

In many places, there are strong movements to improve school cafeteria meals; to restrict vending machines to healthful items or even ban vending machines altogether; and even to extend the junk food ban to nearby retail establishments. Dr. Pretlow says:

If schools had cigarette vending machines in the halls, obviously kids would get hooked on smoking. Highly pleasurable fast food in school lunches is really no different. We’ve got to stop exposing kids to foods that they can get hooked on.

That’s unarguable, but many questions have arisen in connection with these efforts to reduce obesity by making strict rules for school food, whether it is available in the cafeteria, in vending machines, or both. The fact that kids spend so much time in the school environment is on everyone’s minds, but the implications of any proposed intervention are not so clear.

If someone proposed to install cigarette vending machines in schools, the uproar would be deafening. So why is there not the same level of objection to harmful food with low nutritional value or none at all? Why are so many Americans okay with the availability, in the educational setting, of food that contains harmful fats, additives, sugar, salt, and other undesirable ingredients?

On the theory that “you don’t miss what you never had,” the big mistake was to allow unhealthful foods in the first place. Their availability became taken for granted, and the notion of their acceptability gained a foothold. Worthless and harmful foods were permitted to become part of the culture, and especially of the financial underpinning of the educational system. The unintended consequences of that decision have been enormous, and as we will see, the unintended consequences of trying to revoke that decision are also momentous.

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture had already banned many foods from schools, but kids could still buy soda, chips, cookies, and candy. The University of Nebraska released news of a study conducted among kids in grades 7-12 at eight schools in the Midwest. The researchers also consulted school administrators and included several other factors in their deliberations. Here is what they learned:

The findings suggest that a single policy shift — banning all junk food from a la carte lines during school lunch hours — would result in an 18 percent reduction in overweight or obese students.

The study suggests expanding the USDA’s current ban on selling so-called Foods of Limited Nutritional Value during school meal times to include all junk food a la carte selections.

The following year, Brian M. Rosenthal reported for the Seattle Times that student governments were besieging the school board with complaints about strict school food rules. Seattle had been an early adopter, with years of enlightened awareness about the harmfulness of junk food and snacks, and rules that matched. Rosenthal wrote:

The policy, approved in 2004 — before any state or federal regulations on school nutrition had been established — put Seattle on the cutting edge of the fight against childhood obesity…. The restrictions, which are more strict than the now-crafted state and federal nutrition guidelines, allow only products such as milk, natural fruit juice, baked chips and oat-based granola bars.

Sadly, the chief reason for the rebellion was financial. The profits from vending machines on school property went to ASB (associated student body) organizations throughout the city. The income pays for the school yearbooks and newspapers, dances, clubs, transportation, and athletic uniforms and equipment. In 2001, the combined ASBs of Seattle had made $214,000. Ten years later, that number was down to $17,000.

Next: More consequences.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “UNL study: Schools that ban junk food at mealtime are 18% lighter,” UNL.edu, 10/28/2010
Source: “School board may ease ban on junk food.” SeattleTimes.com, 12/11/11
Image by U.S. Department of Agriculture

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Childhood Obesity News | OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say | Dr. Robert A. Pretlow
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