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Virginia Journal of Education

Not In MY School!

Junk food and kids are an unhealthy, education-damaging combination.

There’s nothing complicated about the issue of schools and proper nutrition, according to First Lady Michelle Obama. “The idea here is simple,” she says. “Our classrooms should be healthy places where kids aren’t bombarded with ads for junk food.”

But the issue isn’t always easy, either. Every day in our public schools, young people find themselves facing less-than-healthy food choices available in vending machines, in school stores, and even sometimes from in-school fast-food outlets. On other occasions, unhealthy foods are sold as school fundraisers. These kinds of food and drinks are called “competitive” foods, because they compete with school meals for students’ money.

In response to growing concern about the nutritional options available in schools, NEA’s Health Information Network (NEA-HIN) launched the Healthier School Food Advocacy project, which includes an informational website called “Bag the Junk.” Here’s some useful background for educators available on the site, which is at

Schools and Food
In nearly all schools in the United States, foods and beverages are available for purchase through the federal National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program and through “competitive” venues such as vending machines, food courts, à la carte lines and school stores. Many students rely on schools for their food intake; an estimated 35-50 percent of children’s total calories are consumed at school. However, problems arise when the foods and beverages offered at school are not healthy choices.

Breakfasts and lunches served at school are required to meet federal nutrition standards that are in line with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, while foods available through competitive venues are largely exempt from nutrition requirements.

In response to rising rates of childhood obesity, and citing the connection between poor diet and overweight children, many states and localities have established their own nutrition standards to prohibit or limit unhealthy snack foods and beverages in schools. However, in practice, many standards are not adequate. Recent research indicates that nearly half of U.S. elementary school students can buy unhealthy snacks—such as cookies, cakes and baked goods—at school.

Promisingly, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 required the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to update the national nutrition standards for competitive foods. Interim final standards were issued in June 2013. (Those standards are set to go into effect on July 1, 2014. However, a “special exemption” to the new standards still exists for “the purpose of conducting infrequent school-sponsored fundraisers.” Exempted foods, though, cannot be sold “in competition with school meals in the food serving area during the meal service,” according to the USDA.) 
Those interim final USDA standards outline minimum nutritional requirements for all snack foods and beverages sold in schools; however, several important provisions—including sports drinks, caffeine and, as mentioned, school fundraisers—are partially exempt from the national standards. The exemption of these key provisions creates an opportunity for forward-thinking states and localities to develop model standards that exceed federal requirements and better ensure that students can learn in the healthiest environment possible.

Some Distasteful Facts
Why should we be so concerned about so-called “competitive” foods? Because, while their tasty appeal grabs lots of people, young and old, their impact on students is downright unappealing. Here are some facts, again provided by NEA-HIN through “Bag the Junk”:

Connection between Student Health and Academic Success
• Obesity rates among children and adults have increased dramatically over the past 40 years. Today, nearly one in three American children aged 2-19 —over 23 million— are overweight or obese and at greater risk for chronic diseases and psychosocial problems. The consumption of unhealthy foods and beverages is a major contributor to the development of overweight and obesity.

• Numerous studies have shown there is a strong association between the quality of a child’s diet and their academic performance and achievement.

Competitive Foods are Often of Poor Nutritional Quality
• Federally-funded meal programs in schools (i.e. school breakfast and lunch) are required to meet evidence-based dietary guidelines that promote good nutrition; snacks and drinks sold outside of these programs are not. 

• Competitive foods available in schools are often high in calories, fat, sugar and salt. Many beverages sold in schools, such as soda, fruit drinks, sports drinks and flavored waters are high in sugar and contain little, if any, nutritional value.

• Middle and high schools tend to offer a greater quantity and variety of foods and beverages that are high in sugar, salt and fat than elementary schools. In addition, many secondary schools maintain contracts with fast-food vendors such as Taco Bell, McDonald’s and Domino’s Pizza that allow the sale of fast-food products in school cafeterias.

• Implementing school food policies that limit access to high-fat, high-sugar foods is proven to reduce the number of purchases of these types of foods by students, and may be protective against obesity.

Competitive Foods are Widely Available in Schools
• Between 1991 and 2008, the percentage of middle schools with vending machines increased from 42 to 77 percent and the percentage of high schools from 76 to 96 percent.

• In 2008, 92 percent of high school students and 81 percent of middle school students could buy food or drinks from à la carte lines in school cafeterias.

• In 2010, 65 percent of elementary school students could buy food or drinks outside of school meals, through à la carte lines, vending machines or school stores.

School Environments are Often Contradictory to Nutrition Education Messages
• The sale of unhealthy snack foods and beverages at school is in direct opposition to the healthy nutrition messages promoted in school health curriculum and nutrition promotion in the cafeteria.

Availability of Competitive Food Can Worsen Student Stigma
• Competitive foods can be especially damaging for students from low-income families. The presence of popular junk snack foods and sugary beverages in schools can foster peer pressure and stigma for low-income students who cannot afford to purchase those foods.

What Schools Can Do
Schools should be a place where healthy eating choices are promoted. Here are some steps learning communities can take, recommended by NEA-HIN:

Ban the sale of sports drinks in schools. Major medical groups conclude that sports drinks are unnecessary for students engaged in routine physical activity; yet, sugary sports drinks make up the second largest beverage category in high schools and the third largest beverage category in middle and elementary schools. The American Heart Association recommends that most children and adolescent girls consume no more than 20 grams of added sugars per day, and adolescent boys consume no more than 33 grams of added sugars per day. With 35 grams of added sugar, the average 20‐ounce sports drink exceeds daily recommended amounts for all children.

Restrict the sale of caffeinated products in all schools. The Institute of Medicine recommends that all school foods and beverages be caffeine-free, with the exception of trace amounts of naturally occurring caffeine. However, the USDA interim final standards allow caffeine in high schools. There is there is no scientific justification to consider caffeine as safe for high school-age children, and a growing body of evidence links caffeine and harmful health effects for children, adolescents and young adults.

Require that competitive food and beverage guidelines apply to all school fundraisers. More than 75 percent of schools hold between one and five fundraisers annually, and 25 percent of schools hold between five and 10 fundraisers per year, making such events a common, and often constant, part of the lives of students, staff and parents. School fundraisers are often exempt from nutrition guidelines, allowing the sale of junk foods like candy, donuts and pizza. Requiring school fundraisers to follow competitive foods standards ensures that only healthy food is available to students during the school day. It also encourages the use of non-food fundraising strategies such as car washes, walk-a-thons and gift card sales.


VEA Joins Breakfast Program

As information from the NEA Health Information Network’s “Bag the Junk” initiative makes clear, sound nutrition, including a healthy breakfast, helps students do better in school and also boosts school attendance. We also know that children from lower-income families often don’t get a good breakfast—or any at all.

That’s why VEA has signed on to be one of seven states participating in the 2014-2016 Breakfast in the Classroom project run by NEA-HIN. As a result, Virginia educators will be working to expand participation in the School Breakfast Program to help more students reach the classroom ready to learn.

To learn more, visit



Five Steps You Can Take

1. Be a snack food sleuth.
Identify all the areas where food is sold in your school (i.e. vending machines, cafeteria à la carte, school stores, fundraisers), then do a simple survey to document the types of foods and drinks being sold. Use the data to create a presentation for the school principal or superintendent. A free survey template is available at

2. “Nudge” students toward healthier food choices by making the healthy choice the easy choice at school:

3. Walk the talk. Let your students see you making healthy snack and beverage choices, and encourage other educators and school staff to do the same.

4. Switch up classroom rewards. Try using non-food prizes such as stickers, pencils or extra recess to incentivize students; you’ll be surprised how well kids respond. For more ideas check out

5. Sign up to become an NEA HIN Healthy School Food Champion. You will receive assistance and personalized support from school food experts:


What Local Associations Can Do

Some possible actions for your local, adapted from the Center for Science in the Public Interest:

• Urge your school division to adopt strong nutrition standards for foods and beverages sold in vending machines, school stores, cafeteria à la carte lines, fundraisers and other venues outside the meals program.

• Contact local PTAs/PTOs, school wellness committees, or community health councils to discuss working together to improve school snack foods and beverages.

• Meet with the person or group that makes decisions about what foods and beverages are sold in schools. For example, school meals are usually the responsibility of the school food service director, while vending could be managed by the principal, superintendent, food service or athletic departments.

• Recruit a health professional, such as a pediatrician, family doctor, dietitian, nurse, or dentist, to testify before the school board about the connection between childhood obesity and unhealthy eating habits.

• Urge your school division not to raise money by selling unhealthy snacks and drinks to kids.

• Draw your community’s attention to the rising problem of childhood obesity, poor nutrition and school foods and beverages by taking steps, such as letters to the editor or press releases, to help generate media coverage on the issue.




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