For healthy kids, ban junk food from school vending machines

Schools’ budgets are tight. But schools do not need to sell junk food to pay for school programs. Many schools have shown that they can make money without undermining children’s health.

Schools can make just as much money selling healthy foods, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Their survey of 17 schools and school districts found that, after improving school foods, 12 schools and districts increased revenue and four reported no change. Turns out, changing the a la carte and vending machine products helps increase participation in federal meal programs, which are more profitable for schools.

A number of school districts, and about a dozen states, including Kentucky, Alabama and Arkansas, have updated their nutrition standards for foods sold from vending machines, school stores and other venues outside school meals. However, two-thirds of states still have weak or no nutrition standards for those foods. With the obesity epidemic threatening the health of our nation’s youth, should a child’s access to healthy food depend on which state they live in?

Most states, including Georgia, rely on the national standard to regulate vending and a la carte food. Unfortunately, the national nutrition standard for foods sold in vending machines, a la carte and school stores hasn’t been updated in 30 years.

They no longer make sense. They prohibit the sale of gum, breath mints and seltzer water but allow the sale of candy bars, snack cakes and cookies. That’s because the standards don’t address calories, saturated fat, sodium and other key nutrition concerns. It’s time the standards were updated to reflect current science and concerns about childhood obesity.

Without a national standard, food service directors in smaller school districts and states often have trouble switching to healthier foods. It’s more costly for food manufacturers to produce food to meet different nutrition standards in different states and districts.

That means higher costs for schools. A national standard would help control costs and increase availability of healthier products for Georgia and other schools.

School meals have been regulated at the federal level since the Truman administration. The government invests $12 billion a year in the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs. Schools receive a reimbursement for each meal they sell, and those meals are required to meet comprehensive nutrition standards.

But too many students opt for a soda and a cookie rather than a balanced, reimbursable meal. That’s why the foods sold out of vending machines and school stores are called “competitive foods”; they compete with the balanced school meals, which are healthier for children and more profitable for food service.

It is time for national action. The Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act calls on USDA to update the national school nutrition standard for foods sold outside of meals. The bill would improve child nutrition and health, protect the national investment in school meals and help control costs for food service directors. I hope Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) will co-sponsor this important bill. It’s good for students’ health and school finances.

Laura Lowe is district dietitian for Sodexo at Atlanta Public Schools.