School Nutrition: Targeting Junk-Food-Filled Vending Machines

Children will adapt to what they are given. Put a junk food-filled vending machine in front of a child and more than likely he will dial for Doritos.
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Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years. Statistics show that nearly one in three American children are either overweight or obese. I repeat: one in three! Sadly, these statistics have become the norm and for no justified reason.

These statistics need to change for a number of reasons, the most important one being that this is a matter of life and death. But where do we start?When our grocery store aisles are filled with candy, cookies, soda, sugary cereals and other heart-unhealthy processed foods and sugary, artificial additives, how do we shake this epidemic?

While I believe that parents play the most important role in teaching children healthy habits, I also believe that the U.S. school system plays a very central part in developing a child's eating habits.

I recently published my fourth book (coauthored by Natalie Geary, M.D.) called "The Food Cure for Kids." The book is, in a few words, about how kids become better -- or "cured," if you will -- physically, mentally and behaviorally when living on the ideal nutritional diet.

While skimming the BusinessWeek website, I came across an article entitled "School Vending Machines Undermine Student Nutrition." The article really hit home and is very closely related to my book.

The social issues inflicted upon children who are overweight and obese are highly debilitating and include depression and lack of self-esteem. What type of message are we sending when educational institutions -- the very place that is supposed to infuse our children with thoughtfulness and nourishment -- literally pushes limitless high-calorie and excessively processed foods?

The BusinessWeek article examined a study from the Journal of Adolescent Health, showing the negative impact that vending machine foods had on the purchasing choices of students at about 150 different U.S. schools. Eighty-three percent of the studied schools housed vending machines with foods containing minimal nutritional value -- such as chips, soda and candy. The remaining schools' vending machines contained fruits and vegetables.

The findings showed that students without access to junk food-filled vending machines ate more produce overall.

The moral of this story is that children will adapt to what they are given. Put a junk food-filled vending machine in front of a child and more than likely he will dial for Doritos. When this same child is presented a vending machine with the choice between an apple or a bag of grapes, he will have no choice but to choose one of two fruits and, consequently, develop a taste for fruit. Vending machines do not make sense inside a house of education unless they are offering thoughtful foods that are beneficial to children's health.

In my book, I actually note my opinion that vending machines are a novel and unnecessary addition to schools. Principals and parents have begun to see them as a source of revenue to pay for extracurricular programs and school supplies. Parents must realize, however, that the implementation of vending machines are becoming factors of the growing number of children with heart problems, diabetes and other health risks.

Parents and principals: If you want healthy, successful and active children, I ask you to look for revenue solutions beyond vending machines; there is a better way to raise money than asking your child to buy a bag of chips. A bag of grapes will support your school's football team or your fall talent show just as well as a bag of chips or a pack of Twinkies. Even better, your kids will walk away with a valuable lesson and maybe even increased self-esteem.

Take the time to check out your child's cafeteria and explore what's inside their vending machines. If you don't like what you see, take a stand. Do something. If parents and schools can work together we will find a new generation of children, which are better educated and healthier. What more can a parent want?

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