Junk Food Availability in Schools

children holding school lunch trays

Childhood Obesity News has been looking at the question of how much responsibility schools should bear for preventing childhood obesity. In one way, it seems almost intuitively obvious that, especially in the early years, school is the right place to teach good habits of nutrition and physical development. Politically, it seems obvious because obesity is a huge public health issue and a drain on the finances of the nation. Yet all of those points have been contested extensively.

Many people feel that, at the very least, schools should not add to the problem by serving unhealthful foods in any free or discounted meals available to children in need. In cafeterias where a child can choose to buy lunch or not, it still seems that there is an obligation on the part of the school to avoid serving items full of empty calories.

Vending machines are a whole separate issue, and it’s very tempting to go for the simple answer of disallowing them entirely. Why are there vending machines in schools at all? Why entertain any disputes about what should be available in those machines — why not just get rid of them? The website Debate.org asked the question, “Should schools have vending machines?” and three-quarters of the respondents said yes.

Some alleged reasons for keeping snack vending machines are just plain silly — for instance:

Removing vending machines makes it less convenient. It does NOT prevent anything. They can still buy “unhealthy snacks” from outside and bring them to school and share them.

Just substitute “drugs” for “unhealthy snacks,” and think about how much sense that argument makes. Yet it contains a grain of truth, because some schools that have tried to limit junk food access on or near the school grounds have found that suppression only stimulated the growth of a clandestine underground economy.

A couple of years ago, the school district in Los Angeles adopted a new, healthful menu, only to find that kids were throwing the food in the garbage. But entrepreneurial students brought in snacks to sell to their peers, establishing a junk food black market. Some schools have enough trouble keeping knives and guns out of their premises — should they also be expected to enforce anti-snack laws too?

Dr. Pretlow brings up an interesting point from his own early experience:

I recall when I was in college, I got a job giving out free cigarillo sample packs to students at football games. Do fast food companies sell pizza, Chicken McNuggets, etc. to school cafeterias at significantly reduced prices in order to get the kids hooked? Financially strapped schools would take advantage of such offers, in effect selling the souls of their students.

People say that school vending machines are good because schools profits from them, raising money for projects and clubs. Others say the public already pays taxes for the very purpose of supporting schools, and if the government would curb some of its irresponsible and unpopular uses of public money, it would be no problem for schools to meet their funding needs.

The science website ineffableisland.com collected some fascinating stories about school lunches. One suggests that even foods that meet the nutritional guidelines laid down for schools might still contain unacceptable amounts of additives and preservatives. If true, this probably leads to disturbances in the educational environment, because these substances have been linked to hyperactivity. And as Childhood Obesity News has mentioned before, there are many school cafeterias where free drinking water is not even available.

Another problem is that food supplies are not always acquired solely on the basis of their nutritional qualities:

The USDA purchases surplus foods, like meat and dairy, and provides them to institutions completely gratis…. While budget-friendly, these may not always be the best choices for concocting healthy meals, as many prove high in saturated fat and cholesterol.

A theory from the discipline of behavioral economics holds that banning junk food is counterproductive:

Coercion could backfire and cause students to seek out unhealthy foods outside of school as compensation. A greater range of choices, coupled with education and controlled portion sizes, can actually be a much more effective method than a full junk food ban.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Should schools have vending machines?” March 2013
Source: “Junk food ban in schools set to begin but could create black market,” RT.com, 04/12/14
Source: “25 Facts You Should Share for School Lunch Week,” 2011
Image by U.S. Department of Agriculture

One Response

  1. I really enjoyed reading your blog post! Throughout the years obesity has been an ongoing and growing problem in America. The foundation for lifelong good health is laid in childhood. Big percent of our childhood life is spend on school, this means that schools should be responsible in improving youth health and tackle obesity at the ideal point in time, before the problems take hold. They should also provide and surround students with opportunities to eat healthy and stay active. The sooner we act, the better chance in fighting against obesity epidemic.

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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