To Save Lives: Why Our School Went Junk Food Free


Educators giving students the choice between carrots and chips, as reported in a recent New York Times article, is not a choice: it is negligent. Despite the alarming childhood and teen obesity epidemic, school personnel serve as "detail" sales people for products directly linked to obesity. When these products are sold or allowed on campus, the school is giving a tacit product endorsement. Under the guise of raising funds for athletic programs, schools are being used to endorse products which are linked to poor health outcomes.

I remember when seat belts were first introduced in cars, when candy cigarettes were the preferred trick or treat, and when high schools had smoking lounges for students. As scientific evidence mounted, public health campaigns moved to make seat belts mandatory and to ban tobacco products and use in schools. Teachers could smoke at home, but not school. Why? To save lives.

I predict the day will come when commercial interests will be similarly barred from selling their wares on school property and when students will be required to refrain from bringing in junk food, just as they are currently required to refrain from tobacco and alcohol use on campus. To save lives.

And what will happen when that Junk Food Free Campus day arrives? It arrived for Codman Academy Charter Public School this September.

We went Junk Food Free as a policy when students from the Nutrition Action Club presented their findings to our school board last June. The club advisors, Dr. Susanna Bedell and Mbakwe Okafor, Wellness Director, both view nutrition through the lens of social justice. It is not a coincidence that our low-income neighborhood is considered a "food desert". Armed with scientific information, students took action to save lives.

We have never served beverages or food high in fat, sugar or sodium, but there was a flood into the school of those items. We provide free breakfast, lunch and healthy snacks at no charge to any student. To save lives.

Nutrition education extends across the school. In Chemistry, for example, science teacher Emily Speck approached Haley House to teach chemistry through cooking classes. In Talking Circle, a weekly single gender counseling group all ninth graders participate in, social worker Shelby Derissaint teaches nutrition through cooking lessons making healthy snacks for the entire school.

Students recognized that it would be hard to make this behavior change. Two years ago, Nutrition Action Club sponsored Junk Food Free month and last year they sponsored Junk Food Free Spring. In June, they felt the school was ready to adopt a Junk Food Free policy and successfully had it adopted by our school board. We are currently developing a "Save Your Life Nutrition Competency Test" which will become a graduation requirement. To save lives.

So what has happened in this first month at our school?

1. More students are calmer which enhances their concentration. We share our site with our partner, Codman Square Health Center, and the first few weeks of school, health center staff kept saying, "What are you doing differently? The students are so much calmer." Not every student, every moment, but overall, we agree. I chalk the increased calmness and greater focus to dramatically less high fructose corn syrup consumption.

2. Noticeably less litter outside school.

3. Culture has shifted to "What is Junk Food and why is it unhealthy?" as topic of conversation among and between students, parents and staff.

4. Students may "slip" but they all know that the norm in our school is to be junk food free. The consequences are the same as for violating other norms, such as using a cell phone. In our school, this means losing citizenship points.

5. Overall, it has been a smooth implementation due to hard work of students, staff and parents who share a base of understanding of why we are doing this: to save lives.

I recently shared these observations with another school leader and asked if that school might be interested in also going Junk Food Free also. "But what about the teachers and staff? How do you get them to give up their sodas?"

Wow. Diabetes, hypertension, shortened life span, compromised quality of life not enough to make the case? Don't they view adults -- all adults in a school -- as role models for students?

Some day we will remember back to a time when beverages and foods high in sugar, salt and fat were actually sold, served or allowed in schools.

That day can't come too soon.