A massive survey of vending machines in American schools finds that 75 per cent of the drinks and 85 per cent of the snacks sold are of poor nutritional value, says the active consumer pressure group the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). Sugar drinks and candy top the list, whereas water, diet and milk drinks, and fruit were the small minority.
Schools have been under some pressure of late to change the contents of their vending machines in order to give school children healthy options. The CSPI contends that all foods sold out of vending machines, school stores, and other venues outside of the official school lunch program should make positive contributions to children's diets and health.
"It's hard enough for parents to guide their children's food choices, but it becomes virtually impossible when public schools are peddling junk food throughout the school day," said CSPI nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan.
The study of 1,420 vending machines in 251 schools found that of the drinks sold in the 13,650 vending-machine slots surveyed, 70 per cent were sugary drinks such as soda, juice drinks with less than 50 per cent juice, iced tea, and sports drinks. Only 14 per cent of the sodas were diet, and 12 per cent of the drinks available were water. Just 5 per cent of drink options were milk but of those, 57 per cent were high-fat whole or 2 per cent milk.
Looking at the snack foods sold in the machines, candy (42 per cent), chips (25 per cent) and sweet baked goods (13 per cent) accounted for 80 per cent of the options. Of 9,723 snack slots in all the vending machines surveyed, only 26 slots contained fruits or vegetables.
While the Department of Agriculture (USDA) sets detailed standards for nutrient content and portion sizes for the official school meals, it currently has little authority to regulate foods sold outside those meals, whether in vending machines or a la carte (snack) lines in cafeterias. According to CSPI, Congress needs to give USDA more authority to regulate such foods in order to preserve the integrity of the federal school lunch program, in which the federal government invests $8.8 billion a year.
"Junk foods in school vending machines compete with, and ultimately undermine, the nutritious meals offered by the federal school lunch program," said Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA). "Congress should step in and ensure that soda, candy, chips, and cookies don't become the de facto school lunch. USDA needs to set standards for all foods sold in schools that participate in the federal school lunch program."
Despite the financial pressures on school systems that lead them to sell junk food in the first place, some schools are voluntarily setting higher nutrition standards for vending machine foods. As it happens, says CSPI, those school districts are doing well financially by doing good-they are not experiencing a drop-off in revenue by switching to healthier foods.
"Though many assume that vending machines will only be profitable if they are stocked with junk foods, we have not seen a loss in revenue by switching to healthier options," said Carolyn P. Whitehead, the health and physical education coordinator for McComb, Mississippi school district, which now sells only water and 100 per cent fruit juice in vending machines.
Soda and low-nutrition snack foods are a key source of excess calories in children's diets, contribute to overweight and obesity. Obesity rates have doubled in children and tripled in adolescents over the last two decades.
At least 155 million school-age children worldwide are overweight or obese, according to a major new report from the International Obesity TaskForce. Revealing how the global obesity epidemic is affecting children, the International Obesity TaskForce says that one in 10 children is overweight with around 30-45 million within that figure classified as obese - accounting for 2-3 per cent of the world's children aged 5-17.