Not a healthy choice: junk foods vs. the school lunch program

I devoted the previous posts 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 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 were 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.


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.

Is there a vending machine in your kids’ school?

Do you give your kids money to buy food at school? What advice do you give them about their choices for lunch?

Published on: February 18, 2010
About the Author
Photo of Ayala Laufer-Cahana MD

Dr. Ayala is a physician (Pediatrics and Medical Genetics), entrepreneur, artist, and mother of 3 school age active kids. Dr. Ayala’s main interests are preventive health care and nutrition. She is a serious home cook and strongly believes that eating healthy and enjoying good food go hand in hand.

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