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Setting a New Academic Standard: Getting Junk Food Out of Schools

A healthy nation starts with healthy kids, and experts and parents agree that junk food is a huge contributor to skyrocketing rates of diabetes and other chronic diseases. But the food and beverage industries spend billions of dollars promoting unhealthy foods virtually everywhere kids go–including schools. And it’s working: sugary beverages and nutritionally poor snacks are more available to students than ever before. It’s time to set a new academic standard by supporting school policies that put the health of kids first, and keep the junk out.

Kids get up to 50% of their total caloric intake at school, making the school environment a critical venue for promoting and supporting healthy eating. And while federal efforts have resulted in improvements to the nutritional quality of school meals (via the 2010 Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act), that’s only half the story. This legislation succeeded in closing a door to letting nutritionally poor foods into school meals, but multiple windows remain wide open.

Food manufacturers still have access to students through vending machines, a la carte lines, and school stores. Nearly half of elementary school students can buy junk food at school, and a 2005 study found that 68% of students drank sugary beverages during the school day.

Not only that, the food industry views schools as prime advertising real estate – making use of walls, scoreboards, and even yearbooks to market their brands. Access to junk food in schools affects all kids, but not equally. Healthier snacks are less available to students in lower-income public elementary schools (those serving a high percentage of students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch) than they are to students in higher-income schools. All kids deserve equal access to healthy foods, and schools are no place for the food industry to undermine community efforts that support healthy eating.

The food industries deceive families and kids – in and outside of schools – by promoting unhealthy foods using packaging that misleads parents, ads that directly target kids, and engaging in behind-the-scenes lobbying to thwart any oversight. Our 3-minute video “We’re Not Buying It: Stop Junk Food Marketing to Kids” shows how the food and beverage industries profit off of undermining kids’ health:

Now is the time to update and strengthen policies at the federal, state, and school district level that address snack foods and sugary beverages. Not all schools have a food and beverage policy, and when they do, they’re often weak or not enforced. But the pervasiveness of these foods counteracts schools’ efforts to provide a healthy food environment, and severely undermines parents’ efforts to provide and promote nutritious foods to their children. Both research and public opinion support this notion: a recent poll in California indicates 96% of voters support serving healthier foods and beverages in schools, and a study conducted at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln found that banning junk food from a la carte lines would result in an 18% reduction in overweight or obese students.

Eliminating sales of snack foods not only benefits kids’ health, it’s also a good investment in our schools and communities. Six months into a pilot program that eliminated junk food from a la carte lines and vending machines in a San Francisco middle school, the cafeteria became one of two in the district to turn a profit. A growing body of evidence suggests that schools can have strong nutrition standards and maintain financial stability.

From Montana to Iowa to Louisiana, schools are finding innovative, cost-effective ways to create healthy, sustainable food environments (visit our tools to find more community examples: Communities Taking Action and the ENACT Local Policy Database). When it comes to protecting kids’ health, too much is at stake — we need local and federal policies that support schools’ and families’ efforts to keep kids healthy, in the first place.

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