Snack Attack: Schools Try to Get the Junk Out

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It's not hard to figure out that stocking school vending machines with sugary sodas and salty, fatty snacks is a bad idea. Replacing those culinary culprits with something more nutritious is tougher.

But a growing number of school districts around the country are trying anyway.

"I can't say enough for what it does for the kids to have the junk out of the machines," said Patricia Gray, who, as former principal of San Francisco's Balboa High School, oversaw a switch to healthier snacks.

"It was not an easy task," said Gray, now an assistant superintendent with the district. "It was a re-education process."

Efforts to get empty calories out of students' hands are being made in almost every state, according to the Centers for Disease Control. A 2008 School Health Profiles Survey found that fewer secondary schools were selling less nutritious snacks compared with two years before.

Among the findings: Across 34 states, the median percent of secondary schools that ditched non-nutritious snacks increased from 46 percent in 2006 to 64 percent in 2008.

Still, the report found more progress needs to be made.

How big of a deal is what kids eat at school?

According to the Institute of Medicine and the National Center for Health Statistics, the average young person gets more than 10 percent of his or her calories from saturated fat, takes in less than two-thirds the recommended intake of calcium and more than double the recommended amount of sodium. And for boys and girls ages 9 to 13, 21 percent get more than one-fourth of their energy intake from added sugars.

Food in the lunch and breakfast programs must meet nutritional standards to qualify for federal reimbursement, but food sold in other school venues, including vending machines, aren't subject to those requirements.

Some states have passed their own laws regulating vending machines, including California, which forbids some non-nutritious snacks. In San Francisco, the school board has a stricter policy, passing a wellness policy implemented in the 2003-04 year that banned sodas (this is now part of the state standard, too) and nixed snacks like baked potato chips.

"It may be less bad for you, but that doesn't mean that it's good for you," said Dana Woldow, a leader in the push for better snacks and co-chair of the district's Student Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee.

Things aren't perfect now, but they're "a million times better" than the past when sodas, candy and fried chips were the rule, Woldow said.

Starting this fall, one machine is being piloted in a San Francisco high school that will offer full, reimbursable, meals — fruit, vegetable, milk, sandwich. The "smart" machine will tally up when a student has selected enough items to qualify as reimbursable.

Drinks allowed in San Francisco school vending machines include water, juice, milk and juice/water blends with no added sweeteners, caffeine or herbal supplements. Snacks include yogurt bars, tuna salad and crackers, fruit bars and sunflower seeds.

Healthier snack machines are showing up all over. Jolly Backer, CEO of San Diego-based Fresh Healthy Vending, says the company has machines in 1,700 locations, including schools, across the United States. Offerings include items such as yogurts and fresh fruit. "All the top-selling drinks and snacks that you'd find in a Whole Foods Market you'll find in our machines," Backer said.

Some, like food activist Marion Nestle, say the idea of healthier vending machines is flawed."It depends how you define healthy," she said. "If you define healthy as slightly better for you than junk food, they're doing a really good job."

She advocates taking out vending machines and focusing on improving school lunch options.

But Woldow notes that the school day is long with extracurricular activities that can go on for hours after the cafeteria closes, which means students might dash out to corner stores for high-fat, high-sugar snacks. "Isn't it better to offer them healthy choices which are also convenient?" she said.

For those working to boost the nutrient value of vending machines, one issue is that machines are often under independent contract, perhaps to the PE department or the English department, making it hard to centralize control.

Bringing about change requires a comprehensive approach, said Gray. In addition to working on vending machine content she stopped the sale of candy for fundraisers, a very unpopular decision for a while, and curtailed bringing in junk food from home. "If you don't have a principal that's totally committed to (healthier snacks), it won't work."

And be patient, she says. Passing out fresh fruit started out as a novelty and turned into a treat. "They will eat it if it's available and you don't have the bad stuff. Kids get hungry. They're going to eat one way or the other."