by Marion Nestle
Dec 5 2007

School nutrition standards: what to do?

I can’t help getting caught up in the arguments about school nutrition standards, particularly because I was quoted in an article about them in the New York Times last week. I am very much of two minds on the subject:

On the one hand: My understanding is that Senator Harkin thinks that his plan for school nutrition standards is the best that can be expected in the current administration. Will the next Farm Bill do something better? I have no idea. So from a pragmatic standpoint, Harkin’s bill is worth supporting. It will get the worst foods out of most schools in most places.

On the other hand: With that said, I personally do not favor setting up nutrient-based criteria for deciding which foods are in or out. I think such standards are a slippery slope. If you set those kinds of standards, food companies will simply formulate products to slip just under the cut points. Does a gram of sugar make that much difference? I don’t think so. My personal view is that schools shouldn’t sell competing foods at all and that vending machines should be removed from schools. Out! Vending machines didn’t used to be in schools and they don’t have to be there now. But, as I like to explain, I have tenure and I get to take principled positions on such matters.

Opinions, please!

And, if you read Portuguese, you can see further comments on this site.

And here’s what the New York Times editorial writers have to say about this issue.

  • I whole-heartedly agree that I too am of two minds on this. But, I think your second point about vending machines going our is really the big piece of the puzzle that makes all the difference.

    Unfortunately, it is the toughest of them all since schools got creative in offsetting lowering funding levels from their local tax-payers by cutting these deals with the soda, chip, and candy vendors that generated funds. So, how do we get them off the ‘drug of vending revenues’, so to speak, and get the taxpayers to properly fund an alternative?

    This is key to solving many issues that schools have to address daily and I think it starts with locally focused solutions that side-step and hope that Congress could get action moving before the ’08 election cycle is over.


    p.s. thanks for adding the “notify me of followup comments” option below!

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  • Vending machines out would certainly be a good step forward.

    I think Jamie Oliver (the chef over in Britain who convinced their government to make healthier school lunches) wanted things to go even one step further – keep kids in, don’t allow them to leave school premises during lunch time as many of them were off in variety stores and fast food joints buying the junk their schools no longer sold.

    A study out of Chicago reported that the proximity of fast food restaurants to schools was in the order of 3 times higher than expected by chance. Frankly if the vending machines are removed from the schools (which of course they should be), it’s probable the kids will just cross the street.

    Though it may be fair to argue that even keeping kids in won’t help. In Alberta there was a news story about kids using Facebook to sell junk food out of their lockers in a school that had banned junk food.

    There’s a quote I often use, “no single raindrop thinks it’s responsible for the flood”. That said, the vending machines are certainly a rain drop and there’s no reason not to remove them.

  • Yes, please – ditch the vending machines. No company in its right mind has any interest in making a truly healthy vending machine. First, there’s a higher markup on junk food (Fritos = 5 cents worth of corn for 99 cents); and second, the companies sense that not enough kids will buy the healthy foods for them to make a profit.

    Instead, we get disingenuous ideas like Stonyfield Farm’s notion of a healthy vending machine:

    Please note that every product, with the exception of the unsweetened, unflavored milk (which is at the bottom, not at eye level), is junk food in a health food suit. And yes, I am including the soymilk – children should not be consuming phytoestrogens in any great quantity – and the yogurt-like substances, which are loaded with sugar. (I wonder how many American children have ever had real yogurt, not that puddinglike concoction of thin, sour fat-free milk, sugar, processed fruit, and thickeners sold under the name of yogurt.)

  • The sixth grade class at our neighborhood elementary school raised funds for their trip by selling 3 pack boxes of strawberries, raised at a nearby strawberry farm (not organic but it’s a start). I thought that was a great idea, compared to the usual novelty ice cream, candy bar, and bake sales fundraisers.

    Creative ideas like that benefit all around – funds raised, fresh unprocessed fruit for kids and families, minimal trucking distances and trash generation, and the local farmers are supported, keeping the funds in the local economy.

  • Fentry

    I, for one, never had a problem with the vending machines in my grade school or high school. We had several of them, but they were all contained in one area which one could only get to feasibly during a free period. Importantly, we also had healthy options at lunch, and so I can probably count the number of times in 10 years I put 50 cents in any one of them.

    Not so when I went to work. All of the food available at work was junk food, and my health certainly suffered if I ever got hungry during a late stay or whatever and was unprepared.

    I think living with junk food could actually be part of the learning process–but only if healthy food is also readily available.

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