2005 Essay Contest Winners

2nd Place – Mark Donaldson, Holland Hall Upper School/Tulsa/ 12th Grade

A Bad Deal – Alternative Food Choices in School Vending Machines

As I buy my lunch at school, I am tempted by a freezer full of delicious ice-creams, all loaded with fat. A few feet further down, a vending machine full of sodas promises me a few hours of sugar-induced bliss, and a crash shortly thereafter. Elsewhere, I am drawn to chips, cookies, and chocolates that fill a well-stocked vending machine. One would think that school would be a teenager’s refuge from these forces that seek to fatten us, yet junk food infiltrates schools through vending machines more every year. School administrators must resist the quick buck that these food companies offer in order to provide healthy choices for students who want to break their dependence on junk food.

In an age when obesity among youth is becoming a concern, school vending machines are bringing more unhealthy foods to children, contributing to this epidemic. Today, 20-30% of children are either obese or are in danger of becoming obese,i a figure that has tripled over the last three decades.ii Today, 74% of middle schools and 98% of high schools provide students with access to junk food through vending machines or snack bars.iii The contents of these school vending machines are incredibly unhealthy, roughly 75% of beverages and 85% of foods have little nutritional value.iv

The situation has gotten progressively worse in recent years, as more schools sign contracts with food and beverage companies in order to obtain funding. Schools sell advertisements in their schools and buses, and give companies exclusive rights to distribute snacks in their schools. Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation tracks this phenomenon, from the first deal between a Colorado school and the Coca-Cola Company in 1993, to the commonplace contracts that occur today.v Their goal, Schlosser claims, is to get kids to drink more soft drinks and eat more unhealthy foods. Exposing children to more junk food, soft drinks, and fast food advertisements may indeed have this effect, as eating habits established by children can be extremely hard to break later in life, and can lead to many health problems.vi These deals may bring much-needed money to schools, but at the expense of the health of our nation’s children.

Our schools must promote healthier eating habits in children, and avoid contributing to our nation’s health crisis. There are many alternative snacks that schools can and should start providing in their vending machines: low-fat milk instead of whole milk; real fruit juices instead of artificial, sweetened ones; low-fat chips and pretzels instead of greasy potato chips; and items such as fruits and vegetables that more children need but don’t get often enough. As Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa stated, “Junk foods in school vending machines compete with, and ultimately undermine, the nutritious meals offered by the federal school lunch program.”vii Fatty, unhealthy foods create a dependency on those quick sugar-fixes, and discourage children from eating whatever healthier foods may be provided to them.

The Oklahoma legislature has begun to take some action on these issues. Two bills in particular, House Bill 1254 and Senate Bill 265, take some preliminary steps to ensure at least some change in school vending machines. These two similar bills suggest such methods as incentive pricing, making nutritious foods cheaper than unhealthy ones, as well as barring unhealthy foods from lower school vending machines and requiring high schools to stock their vending machines with at least 50% healthy food. Both of these bills should be enacted and carefully enforced, and should serve as the beginning of a process that will heavily restrict or eliminate unhealthy foods at schools.

As in every controversial issue, there are many arguments on both sides of the school vending machines debate. Opponents of regulating vending machines often cite the amount of money that schools take in from deals with food and beverage makers. Oklahoma’s schools are in dire need of funding, and it is difficult to take steps that would eliminate a major source of income. However, by accepting these contracts, we are selling children’s futures away in the form of medical costs. Every year, obesity-related health problems such as diabetes, heart conditions, and cancer, cost the nation $75 billion, over half of which is covered by taxpayers.viii It would make much more sense for us to spend these tax dollars funding our schools so they don’t have to make deals with companies, thus preventing many obesity-related health problems in children as they grow older.

In addition, schools can find other sources of income besides contracts with makers of unhealthy foods. If necessary, schools can make contracts with the makers of foods with real nutritional value. However, a school without advertisements would be even better, and the CSPI has assembled a list of many ways that students and administrators can raise money for schools without resorting to advertisements. Signing a contract with Coca-Cola may be the easy way to fund schools, but in the long-term, the costs of such a deal outweigh the benefits.

Critics also assume that children will not take kindly to replacing candy and soda, and will opt to bring their own food to school, nullifying a school’s efforts to promote healthy eating. However, a recent Tulsa World editorial cited statistics from an attempt in Florida to improve school menus, which showed that 85% of students continued eating school food after it had been made much healthier.ix Removing junk food from school vending machines is an important step in improving children’s eating habits, helping them live healthier for the rest of their lives.

I’ll admit it – on some levels, I would miss the quick sugar fix that a can of Coke provides me. However, my body would thank me if I had juice or water instead. That is the dilemma faced by many high-school students today, and many are choosing instant gratification and poor nutrition. By replacing unhealthy foods in school vending machines with healthy ones, we can help students make the right choice for their health.

I Hellmich, Nanci. “School Vending Rated as Junk.” USA Today. May 11, 2004. Online at http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/2004-05-11-vending-machines_xhtm

ii Chang, Alicia. “Schools Across U.S. Target Vending Machines in Obesity Controversy.” Associated Press February 26, 2004.
Online at http://www.organicconsumers.org/schoool/obesity031904.cfm

iii “ Dispensing Junk Survey.” Center for Science in the Public Interest. Accessed March 27, 2005. Online at http://cspinet.org/new/pdf/dispensing_junk.pdf. Pg.8

iv “Dispensing Junk Survey. Pg. 8

v Schlosser, Eric. Fast Food Nation. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001. Pg 51

vi Schlosser, Eric. Fast Food Nation. Pg. 262

vii “School Vending Machines “Dispensing Junk.” Center for Science in the Public Interest. Accessed March 27, 2005. Online at http://www.cspinet.org/new/200405111.html

viii “Dispensing Junk Survey.” Pg. 15

ix DelCour, Julie. “The shape of things to come.” Tulsa World. March 13, 2005. Pg. G1

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