2005 Essay Contest Winners

Honorable Mention: Zack Stoycoff, Inola High School/11th Grade

School Vending Machines: Health vs. Wealth

There’s little doubt that Oklahoma youngsters need a healthier lifestyle. According to a 2004 news release, the Oklahoma State Board of Health declared that 15% of Oklahoma children are overweight.1 Let’s face it; Oklahomans love their food – from juicy slabs of steak to junk food and coke. However, children aren’t learning bad eating habits from home as much as from the place they spend most of the day: school, where the constant presence of inexpensive soft drinks and candy bars in strategically placed vending machines doesn’t set the example for change that many Oklahomans would like their children to be exposed to. According to researchers from the University of Minnesota, the availability of soft drinks in vending machines at school is strongly associated with the amount of such drink a child consumes.2 Clearly, children learn much more than academics at school; they also develop habits that will last a lifetime. As a result, schools have a duty to promote good eating habits and healthy lifestyles through what they make available to students. The question on schools’ minds, however, isn’t if they would like to give healthier choices in vending machines; it’s could they survive without the support from contracts with candy and soda companies if they do?

Oklahoma may not be ready to jump the gun just yet. According to the lunchroom manager at Kelly High School, part of the Chicago School District which recently banned the sale of junk food, sales have dropped considerably from the pre-ban era. In fact, profit from one food stand is down almost $1000, she said. On top of that, the Chicago Public School District as a whole is expected to lose $15 million in food sales over the next five years.3 With the budget crunch here in Oklahoma, now is not the time for the education system to try to overcome losses like that. The process of eliminating junk food sales in Sooner State schools should, instead, be at a slower, more gradual pace than other states have taken.

Contracts with soda companies should be renewed for the short term, but altered to allow schools to designate vending machines off-limits at lunch and breakfast. That would ensure that students purchase the nutritionally balanced school meals rather than simply grabbing a quick pop bottle or candy bar. Another option is to move ‘unhealthy’ vending machines further away from designated eating areas and replace their former locations with new machines carrying healthy alternatives. Although some students would seek out the pop and candy machines even if it means walking further, pricing the healthier items lower than their unhealthy counterparts would persuade a change in eating habits without abruptly cutting short the cash flow from pop vending machines. A 2002 article from the Pioneer Press reported that one Midwestern school replaced all but one of its soda machines with those carrying water and 100% juice and priced the new items 50-cents less than the pop. After a few months, water noticeably outsold pop compared to the same interlude of the previous year.4 These findings are supported by a survey of Inola High School students that revealed many would actually opt for healthier snacks if the vending machines provided them.5 Another survey published by the American Journal of Public Health came to a similar conclusion.4 Still, implementing such plans would undoubtedly result in lost revenue for schools. Even so, the first steps to a healthier Oklahoma must be taken eventually and an opportunity to take them with less pain is being presented now, as large portions of the new state lottery revenue are soon to be appropriated to the school system. If the timing is utilized, the fresh money would help counteract losses.

This change is not a choice for schools; it’s an obligation. Recently, more and more evidence linking soda and candy with childhood ailments has been brought to light. For example, it’s now well known that sugar induces hyperactivity and ensuing tiredness, both of which are commonly argued to interfere with class work. More serious and long term affects have been discovered as well. The highly acidic quality of the phosphoric acid in pop, for instance, has been known to prompt the body to remove minerals like calcium from bones as a means to offset the acid. Researchers who conducted a study on 460 high school girls cited this as a reason why teenage girls who are physically active are five-times more likely to suffer a broken bone if they drink soda. For the same reason, it was found that soda is a major contributor in the development of Osteoporosis in both sexes.6

The high sugar and caffeine content of soft drinks has not only been strongly linked with causing bone problems, but also obesity, childhood diabetes, mood swings, tooth decay, the inability to focus, increased blood pressure, difficulty sleeping, heart problems and more. Since schools play a major role in the amount of soda children consume, serving such drink goes against what schools were created to do. Although it has been argued that money from vending machine contracts helps fund extra-curricular activities and programs, part of a school’s duty is to educate children on proper nutrition. If the desire for money prompts schools to install, and thereby promote, drinks and snacks in vending machines that are harmful to students’ health, then schools are drifting from their true mission. The eating habits shaped by indulging in the presently easy and inexpensive practice of grabbing a junk food item at school everyday will not only affect students’ health in the short term, but prolong the Oklahoma tradition of being one of the unhealthiest states in the nation. No one wants to pass on that burden on to the next generation – the time for change is now.

1 Williams, Pamela. Press release. Oklahoma State Board of Health 13 February 2004. www.health.state.ok.us/program/hpromo/news/news04/resolutions.html

2 Kelly Liebbe. Press release. American Dietetic Association 30 July 2004. www.eatright.org/Public/Media/PublicMedia_20243.cfm

3 Ana Beatriz Cholo. “City schools to lose their fizz.” Chicago Tribune

4. Natalie Y. Moore. “School can undo healthy choices at home” St. Paul Pioneer Press. 26 February 2002 www.twincities.com/mld/pioneerpress/2744856.htm

5 Zack Stoycoff. “School vending machines don’t give healthy choices.” Inola Independent September 15, 2004.

6 Jeannie Crabtree C. Ac. “Consuming soda leads to Osteoporosis in teenagers.” Health-Doc.com 2002. www.health-doc.com/healtharticles/teenagersandsodas.html

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