Do you have a vending machine at your office or place of business that seems to call your name when lunchtime approaches? Go and take a look at what snacks and treats are nestled amongst the rotating coils. Is there anything even remotely healthy — such as trail mix, dried fruit, sunflower seeds, or whole-wheat crackers? Chances are at least 80 percent of the snacks are candy, chips, and other assorted junk foods. And odds are that the vending machines in your child's school are even worse.
Is it true that the principal of a school has no control over the food choices offered in the cafeteria?
Yes and no — he may not create the menus, but he should be able to convey your concerns to those who can. If he isn't being helpful, call the school district and ask who directs the food-service program. That is probably your best starting point for airing your concerns. If the district outsources menu planning to a private company, consider bringing up the issue at the next school-board meeting.
Improving the Options
Vending machine foods, particularly the nonrefrigerated variety, are frequently chock-full of preservatives that extend their shelf life. That doesn't mean that vending machines are completely hopeless. Ask your school or school district to request that snack vendors offer healthier choices. Even if the school has a long-term contract with a vending company, they should be able to work together to come up with acceptable alternatives.
Snack-sized packages of raisins, granola or oat bars, applesauce cups, whole-wheat pretzels, and air-popped popcorn are just a few healthy vending machine ideas. Beverage machines can hold low-fat and skim milk, a variety of flavored and plain bottled waters, and 100-percent fruit juices.
Another short-term fix is to turn the machines off at certain times of the day. The FNS requires that schools participating in the National School Lunch Program limit access to vending machines during all school-lunch periods. Make sure your child's school is adhering to that policy. That doesn't stop students from accessing the vending machines during other times of day, but it's a step in the right direction.
Sometime over the past several decades, soda has become a ubiquitous “kid” drink, and Coke and Pepsi machines have sprung up in school cafeterias and hallways nationwide. But with the fattening of America's youth and adults and the revelation of several clinical studies that have found a definite link between excessive soda and soft-drink consumption and childhood weight problems, the drink has been demonized. And not without good reason — one can of regular Coke has 97 calories and 27 grams of sugar in a mere eight ounces, or two-thirds of a can. Pepsi weighs in at 100 calories and 27 grams of sugar.
But as school departments and lawmakers move to push soda out of the schools, it's important for them to realize that soda isn't the only problem. Many “fruit drinks” offer little juice and lots of sugar as well. Even too many sports drinks, when they're not used primarily as a rehydrating beverage during sports or strenuous physical activity, can pack on the pounds. Making low-fat milk, diet sodas, bottled water, and low- or no-sugar-added teas and pure fruit juices available for thirsty kids is the best choice.
Some states have drafted or passed legislation that forbids or limits the sale of soda and unhealthful snacks, despite the financial attraction of vending deals. Until the sale of foods of “limited nutritional value” in schools was restricted by the Texas agriculture commissioner in 2003, school soda vending-machine contracts were pumping an extra $54 million annually into the Texas school system alone.