Junk food in jeopardy at Columbia’s schools

The School Board considers placing healthy food in vending machines.
Thursday, June 23, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:00 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

The glow of vending machines in the halls of Columbia Public Schools could soon grow dim.

The Columbia School Board has formed a committee that will meet next week to discuss and make recommendations whether to place healthier foods in school vending machines.

Vending machines are in Columbia’s high schools and are accessible during school hours, said board member Darin Preis. He said vending machines at the junior high schools are turned off during school hours; the machines have been removed entirely from elementary and middle schools.

At last week’s Columbia School Board meeting, the Columbia-Boone County League of Women Voters recommended that the district remove food and drinks of minimal nutritional value — junk food — from vending machines.

Marci Lower, the league’s education director, presented findings from various studies on the health consequences of junk food consumption among children.

“In general, if students are exposed to this type of environment, there’s a lot that could happen,” Lower said. “It’s an expensive way to ruin your health.”

The League of Women Voters is not the first community group to voice concern about vending machines in schools. The Good Food for School coalition began working on the issue three years ago but has made little progress. Earlier this year, Preis made nutrition a central issue in his campaign for the School Board.

In addition, Rep. Judy Baker, D-Columbia, is writing a bill to address nutrition in schools. The bill would call for the replacement of junk food with sugar-free beverages and healthy snacks. “I have people on both sides who believe this is something we must do,” she said. “This is something we, as adults in society, must work toward — sending better messages to our children.”

Preis said the vending machines bring in about $70,000 to the district each year, which is used for student activities and supplies. Although Lower and Preis would prefer to see all vending machines removed from schools, they both said it may be more feasible and economical to replace them with healthier choices. Brian Walsh, director of communications for the American Heart Association for Missouri, agreed that providing alternatives is important to helping students make healthy choices.

“I would advocate choice,” he said. “It’s all right to eat junk food every once in a while, but when it becomes an everyday thing where it’s a staple of your diet, that’s when problems arise.”

Walsh said more than twice as many children and almost three times as many teens are overweight now as in in 1980. He said obesity is slowly overtaking smoking as the No. 1 risk factor for cardiovascular disease and stroke.

Vending machines contribute to the problem, along with poor nutrition and lack of exercise, according to Walsh.

“Children are developing cardiovascular disease, and people are dying earlier because of how they treat their bodies at a younger age,” Walsh said.

Along with the concern about vending machines in schools, the league is also interested in improving health and nutritional education.

“We just feel it’s important to help students understand that when they’re drinking two to three sodas a day, it’s going to affect their health,” Lower said.

Lower also said in order for schools to promote healthy choices, cooperation is key and people must voice their desire for change.

“It must be a joint situation between the school and the home,” Lower said. “I think traditionally schools have set the standard, and that is what should happen. A positive, healthy lifestyle should be promoted through school.”

Missourian reporter Emily Olson contributed to this article.

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