Schools Still Offer Too Much Junk Food: Report

Although some states are doing better than others, federal review finds

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By Steven Reinberg
HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, Sept. 22, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- As the number of overweight and obese children in the United States rises to epidemic proportions, schools are still making money by selling junk food at snack bars and in vending machines, a new federal report finds.

In this week's issue of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, researchers offer a state-by-state report card on the food offered in school snack bars and in vending machines.

"We surveyed a sample of middle school and high schools, in 27 states and 11 large urban areas," said Howell Wechsler, acting director of the CDC's Division of Adolescent and School Health.

Wechsler's team found that most schools allow students to buy snack foods and drinks from vending machines and school stores. "We found that most of them sell foods that would be considered non-nutritious," he said.

A recent report by the Government Accountability Office found that nine out of every 10 schools sell so-called competitive foods in snack bars and vending machines.

According to the CDC report, there are major differences between the states and cities in the amount of junk food available in schools. Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Texas are at the top of the list in reducing the amount of junk foods sold in their schools, Wechsler said. Among states that offer the most of junk food are Oklahoma, Utah and Washington.

For instance, 18.5 percent of Oklahoma schools offer fruits and vegetables, while 88.9 percent offer chocolate candy. In Connecticut, 57.8 percent of schools offer fruits and vegetables, while 38.3 percent make chocolate candy available.

"When you talk to schools, they say it's very hard to stop selling these foods because of financial problems," Wechsler said. Schools see selling snacks, candy and drinks as a major source of income for school supplies, field trips and other activities, he added.

But the reality is that those financial pressures are the same in every state, he noted. "And yet there are some states where almost all of the schools are selling non-nutritious beverage or snack items and there are other states where not even a majority of schools are selling those items."

That shows that selling non-nutritious snacks is not about need, Wechsler said. "It's about leadership and what your priorities are," he said. "No one is trying to outlaw vending machines, no one is saying that schools shouldn't be making revenue from this. The purpose is to give young people an environment in which it's easier to make the healthy choices."

There's no sense in having children take nutrition classes and then be confronted with high fat, high salt and high sugar foods in the school hall, Wechsler said. "Someone may think that this is the quickest and easiest way to make a buck for a school program, but it's contradictory to how we are trying to get children to lead their lives."

Schools and parents should be working together to improve school nutrition, Wechsler said. "A lot of parents do work hard to feed their children properly," he said. "Then the children get to school and there's all this junk food all around them."

On the positive side, Wechsler said, leadership has made a difference in many schools with many states doing better than other states. "Schools are about education, and teaching our kids about how to lead healthy lives is among the most important things we can educate them on."

One expert thinks there's plenty that parents can do to get schools to offer healthy foods in snack bars and vending machines.

"We know our children are getting fat," said Samantha Heller, a senior clinical nutritionist at New York University Medical Center. "It's not their choice -- they're children. Parents, the community and schools have to take responsibility."

Parents should get involved with their schools and insist on healthy food options, Heller said. According to studies, schools that have improved their food choices have not lost income because of it, she said, adding, "Using that as an excuse is not true."

Another expert offered the example of a world in which children were encouraged, but not required, to attend school -- and then offered alternatives each day, such as a trip to the circus, beach, or zoo.

"How many would do the 'right thing' and attend school? Why, in fact, do we require school attendance? Don't we trust children, and their parents, to make the prudent choice?" said Dr. David L. Katz, the associate director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University.

"Odd as it may seem to recommend school attendance then tempt children away, that is exactly what we do with children's nutrition," Katz said. "We teach children what good nutrition is, and then tempt them away from it by surrounding them with tasty alternatives."

"Unless we are inclined to treat children's minds the way we treat their bodies, and entice them to opt out of school, perhaps we should do the opposite, and start treating food more like we treat food for thought," Katz said. "Let us create school environments that foster healthy development of our children's bodies, and minds."

More information

The U.S. Department of Agriculture can tell you more about how kids can eat a healthful diet.

SOURCES: Howell Wechsler, Ed.D., M.P.H., acting director, Division of Adolescent and School Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Atlanta; Samantha Heller, M.S., R.D., senior clinical nutritionist, New York University Medical Center, New York City; David L. Katz, M.D., M.P.H., associate director, Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, Yale University, New Haven, Conn.; Sept. 23, 2005, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report

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