The question of vending machines in schools is one that has provoked controversy on several fronts. Among the areas of concern are the commercialization of the school environment, the nutritional quality of the food offered in the vending machines, and the more complex question of how revenues from vending are directed. Vending of food in schools falls under the category of “competitive foods.” In this case, the competition is with food served in the school lunch or breakfast program. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s School Health Policies and Programs Study (SHPPS) 2000 survey, 43 percent of elementary schools, 89.4 percent of middle/junior high schools, and 98.2 percent of senior high schools had either a vending machine or another competitive venue where students could purchase food or beverages. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which administers the school meal programs, has only limited authority over the competitive food, including vending.
Recently, many states passed or are considering legislation that would restrict vending choices and/or limit the hours that vending machines can be operational. The 2004 Reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act (which covers school meals) requires that each school district create a local wellness policy to address physical activity and nutrition, and many school districts are using these policies to address vending at the district level. One example is California’s SB 12, which requires all food sold or served on school grounds in middle or junior high and high schools to be approved for compliance with nutrition standards, including limits on the number of calories per serving (vending is prohibited in elementary schools).
In addition to the concerns about nutrition, questions have been raised about issues of commercialization and funding of schools. Some critics believe that schools should be commercial-free zones and that vending machines in schools are part of a corporate effort to promote brand loyalty. These critics note that because children are required to be in school, they are put in the position of being a captive audience for a particular brand or brands. The critics argue that this is not an appropriate role for the nation’s public schools.
Supporters of school vending note that the revenues provided by these programs can be critical to the operation of schools and school districts. With students exposed to advertising in many venues outside of school, they note that what students see in school is not new or different. They also argue that these programs build links between businesses and the school community.
These arguments are linked to larger issues of school funding. Some argue that the revenue raised from vending and other competitive food is critical to the operation of schools, including the child nutrition programs as well as curricular and extracurricular activities. Others argue that if this is the case, it is a reflection of other problems with funding of education, particularly in our poorest schools. They add that schools should not be balancing their budgets through sales to students—especially sales of unhealthy food. Critics also note that students who purchase such products include low-income students, who are the most vulnerable to poor nutrition.
There is general agreement on all sides of the debate that vending is not appropriate at the elementary school level, whereas there is more divergence with respect to sales at the middle and high school level. Some advocates of healthier nutrition have argued that because many school leaders see the revenue as vital, it would be too hard to get rid of vending altogether and that the best alternative is to replace unhealthy vending with healthy vending while also addressing other issues. A number of studies have shown that, in general, there is not a sustained loss of revenue when healthier choices are implemented in the vending machines. School districts that include students in the process of choosing new, healthy products that meet nutritional guidelines have had particular success in matching or exceeding revenues.
With the growing numbers of states and districts putting restrictions in place, many producers are creating new or modified products and package size that meets the new restrictions. The American Beverage Association in 2006 announced new voluntary guidelines as well. These are not binding on schools or bottlers, but seek to limit further restriction by setting some standards.
Although the issues regarding commercialization and equity are far from resolved, the nutrition question received new attention in April 2007 when the Institute of Medicine released its report on nutrition standards for all food served in schools.
The report set new voluntary standards for school districts to adhere to and should potentially influence the USDA if it receives any expanded authority over this area.
- Carter, G. R. (2002). Watching out for our poorest schools. Available from http://www.ascd.org
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2001). School health programs and policy study [Special issue]. Journal of School Health, 71(7).
- Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. (2007).
- Nutrition standards for foods in schools: Leading the way toward healthier youth. Retrieved on June 8, 2008, from http://www.iom.edu/CMS/3788/30181/42502.aspx
- Now With Bill Moyers. (2002). Schools Inc. Retrieved on August 27, 2006, from http://www.pbs.org/now/society/ schoolstats.html
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