No More Junk Food in Schools

Last Update: August 10, 2023

At this point, it’s no secret that America has been fighting a health crisis unlike anything we’ve ever seen. For the first time ever, today’s parents may live longer than their children because of unhealthy eating habits and the lifestyles of today’s youth.

With schools posting junk food advertisements on campus, and the appealing prices of vending machine snacks just about everywhere, how can children (and even adults) make the right choices if they’re not even offered?

According to the Centers for Disease Control:

“Seven of the top 10 leading causes of death are the result of chronic diseases, which are among the most common, costly, and preventable of all health problems in the United States. Heart disease and cancer alone account for nearly half of all lives lost each year. Many of these deaths, as well as those from stroke, diabetes, and other chronic illnesses could have been delayed, and quality of life could have been improved, through health promoting behaviors, including healthy diet, physical activity, avoidance of tobacco, and other types of risk reduction. For example, the success in reducing heart disease mortality has been attributed in part to implementation of evidence-based medical therapies, and in equal measure to reductions in major risk factors, like decreasing blood pressure and cholesterol levels through dietary changes, decreased smoking rates, and increased physical activity.”

Mayor Michael Bloomberg takes the first step

Promoting a healthy diet is often easier said than done, given the ubiquity of fatty, sugary, and processed foods and beverages that are available nearly everywhere we go.

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg realized this and pushed, unsuccessfully, for a ban on extra-large sizes of sugar-filled sodas. Ultimately, a New York appeals court ruled that the mayor’s ban on certain products would violate the separation of powers in the state’s Constitution.

But Bloomberg was onto something, even if he couldn’t get the final law inked. Nutritionists agree that we need to set Americans—especially children—up to make the right dietary choices more often, and that starts with a less toxic environment.

Tempe, Arizona says no more junk food

Common sense says that should start within government buildings such as schools, community centers, and parks. Last year, the city of Tempe, Arizona was weighing a measure that would remove all sugar-laden and fat-laden foods from these types of buildings and recreational areas.

“There are many parents that take great pains to make sure their children eat healthy,” Councilman Kolby Granville told the Arizona Republic. “But as soon as the children get dropped off at a City of Tempe facility, all of that work can be undone with 50 cents and a vending machine.”

According to a 2014 study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, most food available at taxpayer-funded snack counters and vending machines at government buildings is still pretty terrible. In fact, more than 75 percent of the food offered in these government-run facilities included candy, chips, and cookies.

Michelle Obama steps up pressure in schools

Studies done by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation have shown that obesity rates among children ages 6 to 11 years old have quadrupled over the past 40 years, and nearly one third of kids and adolescents—more than 23 million—are obese or overweight.

Following the release of this information, First Lady Michelle Obama stepped up the pressure against companies selling junk food to students. She announced a government proposal that would ban the advertisement of sodas and unhealthy snacks on school grounds, saying that, “Our classrooms should be healthy places where kids are not bombarded with ads for junk food.”

Thanks to Mrs. Obama’s work and a set of aligned USDA rules, advertising sugary drinks and junk foods was discontinued and can no longer appear on the front of vending machines on school grounds during the school day. Instead, healthy food options have taken their place and are promoted on banners hung in hallways and sponsored on scoreboards at school football fields.

Spread the health

Since Michelle Obama’s inspiring health proposal, many others have followed her lead by making changes in schools and community centers. For example, New York City created a law that requires childcare centers to offer healthier foods, improve nutrition education, increase physical activity, and limit screen time of computers, TVs, and other devices.

Mississippi implemented a law where physical education, health education, and wellness policies had to meet specific requirements in schools—in addition to creating new nutrition standards for school meals, snacks, and drinks.

And Lincoln, Nebraska started a program called “Rethink Your Drink,” which is a public service campaign that encourages employers to stock, promote, and competitively price healthy beverage options.

One big player in this health movement is California. The state has been determined to target junk food in schools in order to reduce childhood obesity. It became the first to ban the sale of soft drinks in grade schools, and later passed a similar ban in high schools. Additionally, California has enforced nutrition standards for vending machine snacks in schools through a law that limits the amount of fat, sugar, and calories that can be found in these items for sale.

Although limiting junk food in schools can help children maintain a healthier diet, Dr. Taber, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Illinois at Chicago, claimed that “We have to recognize that school-based laws have a limited scope because students only consume about 25 percent of their calories [here]…No one sector or environment is going to be the magical cure. Obesity is a very complex problem with many answers, so we really need to target different aspects of students’ environments.”

With that said, the health and well-being of an entire generation depends on the ability to educate young people on how to make the right choices (at school and at home) regarding their diets. Working to get some of the cookies, chips, and sodas off the table might be the most effective first step.

Photo credit: Paul Delmont

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Steve Holt

Steve Holt's stories about food, nutrition and food politics are found at Civil Eats,, Boston Magazine, and elsewhere. He's been featured in the Best Food Writing anthology. Follow his tweets and Instagrams @thebostonwriter.

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