Though schools are going to great measures to meet federal nutrition standards in the lunch programs, many across the state are undermining the efforts by putting junk food in vending machines.
So found a study from the office of New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli, who said allowing school districts to set their own guidelines for what type of food is sold in vending machines does not work.
''School vending machines filled with junk food, candy and soda is not the best way to fight childhood obesity,'' DiNapoli's report states. ''The state Education Department has missed an opportunity to help reduce the state's childhood obesity epidemic.''
Megan Snyder, a senior at Jamestown High School, operates a vending machine after school Monday.
P-J photo by Dave Emke
The study, available online at www.post-journal.com, did not visit any schools in Chautauqua or Cattaraugus County. Districts studied by the comptroller's office are in Albany, Delaware, Genesee, Greene, Monroe, Nassau, Oneida, Rensselaer, Schenectady, Seneca, Suffolk, Sullivan, Tioga, Warren, Washington and Westchester counties.
Analysis by the state auditors found that 32 percent of products available in vending machines at the studied schools did not meet districts' own standards for competitive foods and beverages.
When analyzing the same products with the Institute of Medicine's Standards for Foods in Schools - which require products to include at least one serving of fruit, vegetables, whole grains or low-fat/non-fat milk - only 4.5 percent of available products met the standards.
''School vending machines filled with junk food, candy and soda is not the best way to fight childhood obesity.''
BETTER THAN AVERAGE
At Jamestown Public Schools, at least four out of five items in the vending machines must meet district-adopted wellness standards, reports Sunny Linden, the district's coordinator of family consumer science, physical education and health.
Mrs. Linden said that the district's vending machines are filled using guidelines set by Choose Sensibly, which is established by the New York School Nutrition Association. Eighty percent of items in school vending machines are required to meet the guidelines - which means that foods must be limited to seven grams or fewer of fat, two grams or fewer of saturated fat, 360 grams or fewer of sodium, and 15 grams or fewer of sugar. Beverages that meet the guidelines are low-fat milk and flavored milk; juice with 25 percent or more fruit juice; water or flavored water without added sugar, artificial sweeteners or caffeine; and beverages with 10 milligrams or fewer of caffeine per serving.
No soda is offered in any vending machine at JPS elementary and middle schools, nor in any district-operated machine in any of the 10 buildings, officials report. Soda machines are present alongside juice and water machines in the hallways of Jamestown High School, though no food is available at any machine in the school.
These 80-percent standards apply to all a la carte snacks, vending machines, student stores, concession stands, parties or celebrations, food-related fundraising and food-related rewards on school grounds during regular school hours, Mrs. Linden said. She also reports that while the wellness policy may be relatively new at the school, providing healthy choices in the vending machines is not a new concept.
''Even before (the wellness policy) went into effect in June 2008, we went through and did a study at the high school of what was in the vending machines and found that we were already there,'' she said.
MONITORING THE MACHINES
Many of the vending machines at Jamestown Public Schools are put up as fundraising items for various organizations in the district. Mrs. Linden said it is each organization's responsibility to meet the guidelines set by the wellness policy, and she has not discovered any breeches in the policy.
''I walk around and check the vending machines from time to time, and there are a few things in there that are obviously falling into that 20 percent (allotment of non-compliant items),'' Mrs. Linden said. ''But for the most part, they're pretty good about it. When I peruse the vending machines, I don't see any more than that. Obviously, they're constantly changing, but when I walk by and just take a gander, they're doing pretty well.''
The vending machines in the schools' cafeterias are stocked and monitored by the district's food services department. Steven Small, director of food services, said that students are only given access to the district-run vending machines during their scheduled lunch hours, though he could not speak for when the privately managed machines are available for student use.
''The ones that are in the hallways, I don't have any control over,'' Small said. ''I'm assuming that they have timers on them, but you just don't know.''
Small said that governmental guidelines for school lunches are much stricter than the Choose Sensibly guidelines for vending machines and a la carte snacks. However, he says that the short amount of time students are given for their lunches each day deters them from using the vending machines or a la carte snacks as a substitute for a school lunch - and therefore from receiving a less healthy or balanced meal.
''Especially in the elementary schools, there really isn't a whole lot of time to serve snacks - some schools don't serve snacks at all,'' Small said, adding that the majority of snacks sold during lunch periods are at the high school. ''Our emphasis is on serving the school lunches, not snacks.''
Recommendations made to school districts in the comptroller's report include working with the state Education Department to develop guidelines, creating nutrition advisory committees, limiting student access to prohibited foods and beverages before the last scheduled meal period, and considering the adoption of Institute of Medicine standards.
While there has not been any talk of making the district's policy stricter by expanding to Institute of Medicine Standards, Mrs. Linden said any future changes to the JPS policy would have to go through several channels.
''Our wellness policy is a board policy,'' she said. ''We do have a school health advisory council, as I believe most every school in Chautauqua County has, and those changes would go through that council. The council would review those guidelines and make that recommendation to the Board of Education, who would then have the authority to change the policy.''
Any changes made at school districts across the state and nation to provide students with better choices when they step up to a school vending machine would be welcome, Mrs. Linden said.
''I'm hopeful that we will, as a country, continue to go in that direction,'' she said. ''I truly believe that we need to offer healthy choices.''