What is more important than the health of children? Their health is vital to our future. It is a commonly held belief that health is linked to environment, and because children spend a great deal of time in schools, it follows that the quality of their school environment and the things they do at school will have a great influence on their overall health. Although it is somewhat difficult to solve problems like bullying—problems children may face in the hurly burly of social interaction—it is quite possible to influence their health through nutrition and dietary policy. One major problem regarding children’s health is the huge quantity of sugary and high calorie food that is available to them at school. Vending machines are not supervised so it is hard to stop children from eating or drinking as much of these types of food or drink as they want. And since children don’t know what is best for them, this can often be a lot. A number of recent studies have shown the negative role vending machines play in children’s health, and in this essay I will look at some of their arguments.
Part of the reason why the issue of vending machines is on the radar these days is because obesity is becoming more and more of a problem in the United States. Obesity can lead to diseases like Type-2 Diabetes. According to Amy Virus, a registered dietitian, “[m]iddle schools students are at particular risk, because they are going through puberty, their physical activity and dietary habits are fluctuating . . .” It doesn’t help that there is temptation around every corner, with as many as 75 per cent of middle schools possessing vending machines which sell sugary drinks and fatty snacks. With all the emotion going on in their lives, it is not surprising that children going through puberty might reach out to enjoy some “comfort food.”
Some might call them “comfort foods,” but others might call them “competitive foods,” as the U.S. Department of Agriculture does. These are “foods offered at school other than meals served through USDA school mean programs—school breakfast, school lunch, and after-school snack programs.” Because the USDA is responsible to parents and taxpayers, it is careful to provide healthy options for school meals. Plus, this food is being given out by employees and teachers. If a student comes back to the cafeteria for a fourth helping of food, the staff can easily say, “You’ve had enough to eat.” But those who stock vending machines aren’t responsible to anyone: they just want to make a lot of money. Plus, when have you ever heard a vending machine say to a customer, “I think you’ve eaten enough chocolate today”?
The truth is that these competitive foods have almost no value and are bad for children. A survey of vending machines across the country showed that “75 percent of the drinks and 85 percent of the snacks sold are of poor nutritional value. The study of 1,420 vending machines in 251 schools, was organized by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.” Most of the drinks were colas or sports drinks—all with lots of sugar. It was hard to find water or fruit juice. Most of the food was candy or potato chips. If it were the case that kids enjoyed just one of these drinks a day (already perhaps too much) and then had a good meal in the cafeteria that might not be so bad. But as Senator Tom Harkin, a big critic of vending machines in schools, argues, “Junk foods in school vending machines compete with, and ultimately undermine, the nutritious meals offered by the federal school lunch program.” Students end up eating potato chips for lunch, instead of a healthy salad. Nobody wins.
How did this situation come to be? It is hard to know the truth, although it is clear that politicians are happy to blame one another. According to Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, a Democrat from California, President Bush’s education policy called No Child Left Behind is responsible for the mess. She thinks that schools became so underfunded because of cuts, that they needed to bring in private companies to feed the students. It is certainly true that schools make a lot of money from what is sold in vending machines. If a school board signs a deal to exclusively sell Pepsi in the vending machines in their schools, for example, they can get several million dollars up front. They then get a commission of the sales. An article on the subject also says that soft drink companies provide “athletic scoreboards that bear its advertising logos and [have] donated thousands of cases of free beverages to the district.” The money these companies give is of course very useful. It probably goes to buying new books and equipment and in some cases providing a better education to students.
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Although there are still thousand of vending machines across the country selling sugary drinks and food with little or no nutritional value, it appears that things are changing slowly. Obesity is more and more of a concern, and many scientists and doctors strongly urge that all of these drinks be removed from schools. Now that politicians and parents have recognized the problem, schools are starting to sell more nutritious foods, and soft drink companies, for example, are on the defensive. Although schools may make money from these companies, it is increasingly being proven that it is possible to make money by selling healthy foods and drinks too. As long as this continues in this way, American’s children will hopefully get healthier.