Stanley T. Omaye

Across the United States, local regulators and school authorities have been trying to cope with demands of various advocacy groups on the issue of “competitive foods.” The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture defines “competitive foods” as foods offered at school other than meals served through USDA’s school lunch, breakfast, and after-school-snack feeding programs.

Within that definition, USDA targets two categories: (1) foods of minimal nutritional value and (2) all other foods offered for individual sale (so-called a la carte sales), including foods/beverages sold via vending machines, snack bars, etc., not necessarily located in the regular school dining areas.

Although the intent of the agency is understood by most nutrition educators, some advocacy groups appear to be moving toward the inclusion of many other foods—which they call “junk foods”—as targets for elimination from the school eating facilities. However, nutrition scientists and dietitians don’t label foods as bad or good. There is no way to define “junk foods” for excess calories, high sugar content, or lack of nutrients. Should schools band the avocado or potato chips based on calorie or fat content per serving? Nutrition education programs emphasize that all foods are healthy when they are part of a balanced, varied diet with some component taken in moderation. Teaching children the basics of nutrition and the importance of exercise is preferable to labeling foods “good” or “bad.”

Despite jargon, attempts are being made in Texas and California toward phasing out selective (junk) foods in schools. In addition to legislative actions, lawyers are getting into the act, particularly those who see food processors as having the next deep pockets, similar to the tobacco industry lawsuits. Will Ronald Mc-Donald, the Jack-in-the-Box clown, and the Taco Bell dog become symbols of shame analogous to Joe Camel? Placing taxes on, regulating specific “junk” foods, and banning or restricting certain foods or the advertisement of such foods on the basis of bias promotes the concept of “good” and “bad” foods.

USDA’s intent is to preserve the integrity of and student participation in school meal programs. As the agency has noted, children’s eating habits and subsequent health are multifaceted in their origin, with prominent contributions from cultural background, peer interactions, lack of exercise, nutrition education, and personal preferences. Nutrition clearly has a major impact on children’s health, their ability to learn, and their future as healthy and productive adults. Thus, it behooves us not to stigmatize certain foods but to encourage local agencies and school authorities to address the crucial issues. We should:
Elevate the priority of foodservice facilities in school budgets. Many facilities are part of a multipurpose room and are inadequate to prepare and serve food, much less provide the social out-lets that are usually associated with eating. It is no wonder that students prefer vending machines to waiting in long lines to be served.

Provide adequate time for the consumption of meals. All research points to the importance of meals in learning and performance, but inadequate seating capacity, long lines, and insufficient time to eat result in the consumption of less-nutritious foods and the vending machine mentality.

Promote foodservice leadership standards based on nutrition education. We must understand what motivates students’ eating habits, how to promote nutrition, and how to coordinate it with the sale/consumption of competitive foods. Many vendors of competitive foods have embraced promoting nutrition and are willing to work hand-and-hand with foodservice personnel. It is likely that there are opportunities to partner with various vendors to establish nutritious food programs. In these times of problematic school budgets, it seems unfortunate to limit options for schools to draw funding from food companies.

Provide increased food options, including availability of proper snacks, individual freedom of choice, and opportunity for success in student participation. Foods must be attractive, served at proper temperatures, and appealing to students. For example, milk served at room temperature can not only present safety concerns but also quickly turn a child toward seeking another beverage.

Destigmatize the perception that school meals are primarily for poor children rather than nutrition for all children—e.g., only children with money can purchase competitive foods.

Enable a multifaceted health approach, including nutrition education and linking with physical education programs. It is likely that parents and teachers, not to mention legislative individuals, need to become more knowledgeable about motivating children’s eating habits. Old fallacies, such as notions of sugar highs and that junk foods put students to sleep, die hard.

It is time and essential for nutrition professionals to critically examine the so-called successes where local schools have banned competitive foods or other selected foods labeled as “junk.” Are more children sneaking off to get the foods they crave? Is regulating selective foods effective in changing children’s eating habits? Are these behaviors altering students’ risk for acute and chronic disease? It is imperative that foodservice in today’s schools return to basic, commonsense nutrition.

by Stanley T. Omaye, a Food Technology contributing editor, is Professor, Dept. of Nutrition and the Environmental Sciences & Health Program, University of Nevada, Reno.