I devoted a recent post to the school lunch program, a federally sponsored and regulated program, which complies with some (if not altogether satisfactory) nutrition standards for nutrient content and portion size. I was grousing about the sorry state of the food our young ones are served under the guise of an “improved” lunch program.
But to get the full picture of the school food environment, we need to also look at the competitive foods sold in schools–foods that are expressly marketed to our kids–which make up a big part of what kids actually eat while they’re in school.
What are competitive foods? They’re anything sold, served or given to the kids that isn’t part of the school subsidized lunch. They are comprised of foods and beverages sold in the cafeteria or in a school store, from a vending machine or in fundraising events. The lunch money parents give their kids may very well be spent on these offerings, rather than on the school lunch.
Kids love the vending machines and the school stores, but that’s not the only reason these outlets exist. Schools depend on the revenues that vendors bring in to fund much-needed programs. This creates an unusual and worrying conflict, in which schools share an interest with the manufacturers of snacks and junk foods.
The US Department of Agriculture administers and regulates the school lunch program, but has practically no control over other foods and drinks available at schools (although some school districts have taken initiatives to impose restrictions banning some junk food sales in schools). In fact, the only existing federal restriction is that foods of “minimal nutritional values”, such as candy and soda, won’t be sold in the cafeteria during meal times. That of course doesn’t mean they can’t be sold right outside the cafeteria doors.
You can imagine that if the content of the regulated school lunch leaves a lot to be desired, the completely unregulated competitive food scene would be a free-for-all candyland galore.
The Journal of the American Dietetic Association’s special supplement this month analyzed the data from the third School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study. One of the papers is devoted to competitive foods. The data was collected in 287 nationally representative schools and included 2,314 kids.
These were the main findings:
• Availability: One or more sources of competitive foods was available in 73 percent of elementary schools, 97 percent of middle schools, and 100 percent of high schools. À la carte foods sold in the cafeteria were common in all school levels. Vending machines were available in more than one quarter of elementary schools, 87 percent of middle schools and virtually all high schools.
• Consumption of competitive foods: Overall about 40 percent of the kids consumed these foods on any given day. Consumption was much higher in high school and reached 55 percent.
• Energy contribution of competitive foods: Overall kids consumed about 280 calories/day from competitive foods, and almost two thirds of these calories were from foods of low-nutrient and energy-dense food (the study defined “low-nutrient energy-dense food” to include cakes/cookies and other desserts, donuts, toaster pastries, snack chips, French fries and caloric beverages excluding milk and 100% juice). These numbers varied by school type, with middle and high school kids getting more calories from competitive foods. A typical high school kid gets about 340 calories/day from competitive foods, 65 percent (or 220 calories) of which are from junk food.
• The most commonly consumed competitive foods: Desserts and snacks were selected by just over 50 percent of kids; these products include cakes, cookies, candy and ice cream. Sweetened beverages were consumed by almost half the kids--these include juice drinks (not 100% juice) and carbonated soda.
The authors conclude:
“SNDA-III (third School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study) data indicate that consumption of competitive foods was widespread, particularly in middle and high schools. Sources of competitive foods varied by type of school, with vending machines and à la carte purchases most common in middle and high schools and fundraisers and other school activities most common in elementary schools. The specific competitive foods consumed most frequently were low-nutrient, energy-dense foods such as fruit drinks/sport drinks, cookies/cakes/brownies, candy, and carbonated sodas. On average, children who consumed one or more competitive foods obtained 177 calories (8% of total daily energy intake) from low-nutrient, energy-dense competitive foods.”
So, we have low-quality foods sold in the schools competing with a low-quality school lunch–a competition that’s a lose-lose for our kids. Wherever our kids turn they have snacking opportunities that contribute mostly empty calories.
Many parents commented on my previous school lunch post, and told me that they opt to pack a lunch for their kids. It’s sad to say, but for most American kids the only potential source for a healthy nutritious lunch may be the lunchbox from home.
No matter how you approach the school lunch issue, I'm convinced that we as parents have more influence on our kids’ food choices–through what we do, what we say and how we eat–than anyone else. It’s within our reach to exert our influence to better our kids' diet and health.
More on vending machines and the foods they offer here.
Do you give your kids money to buy food at school? What advice do you give them about their choices for lunch?