Junk food does not replace a decent meal

Kai Hagen

March 11, 2004

If you are old enough to have kids in high school, you may remember a poster that read: "It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the Air Force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber."

Well, it still seems there's never enough money for schools, and some parents and schools still hold bake sales to pay for certain programs and equipment. But cash-strapped schools have come up with other ways to generate income. One of the more controversial strategies has been to raise money from the kids themselves through the sale of junk food in vending machines and the school cafeteria.

During the last decade, such fund-raising methods have often included marketing and sales contracts with major soft drink and junk food manufacturers. In exchange for substantial kickbacks for allowing the machines, hundreds of school districts in dozens of states have sold exclusive rights to one of the three biggest soda companies alone.

Incredibly, such contracts often include minimum sales requirements, exclusive advertising access, minimum numbers of soda and snack machines throughout the school, and prohibit the sale of any competitive products on school grounds. One contract with a Maryland school required the school to make the companies carbonated and non-carbonated products available to all students during all hours and at all locations in the school, except where not permitted by federal and state regulations.

Fortunately, in spite of strong, well-financed opposition from groups like the Grocery Manufacturers of America and the American Council on Fitness and Nutrition, growing public concern about the issue has led to some improved, but still basic federal and state regulations about when and what foods of minimal nutritional value can be sold to our children at school.

If you are wondering, the American Council on Fitness and Nutrition is the intentionally misleading name for an industry trade group that includes the National Soft Drink Association, the Sugar Association, the Chocolate Manufacturers Association, the Snack Food Association, the National Confectioners Association, the National Automatic Merchandising Association and others. I probably buy my share of treats from companies that fund the council, but those aren't the folks I want shaping public policy about school lunch programs.

It's easy to sympathize with schools constantly struggling with tight budgets, but one of the problems with a system that gives schools a financial interest in selling sugar to kids is that, practically-speaking, few will find the resolve to place health and nutrition above the much-needed income they receive from junk food sales.

As you would expect, Frederick County Public Schools complies with federal and state regulations. But, those regulations are only minimum standards, generated by a political process that includes and reflects a lot of interests that are not identical to the best interests of our children.

Operating according to minimum standards is what leads to replacing a carbonated soda, now prohibited in certain times and places, with the No. 1 selling "sparkling" flavored water beverage that brags it only has two-thirds the empty calories and carbohydrates.

In Frederick County, the Food Services Department has one set of machines that operate most of the day, and the schools have another set of machines that are turned on after the lunch hour. Even with restrictions on what and when they can sell, the bottom line is that our schools still generate tens of thousands of dollars selling sugar.

Research clearly shows that there has been a significant increase in obesity, diabetes, nervousness, insomnia, attention-deficit disorder and problems among students today,

We still teach and promote nutrition in the classroom. Is it too idealistic to think that we can do better than the minimum standards in the rest of the school?

To get in touch, e-mail Kai Hagen at