Rethinking School Vending Machines

A whole new approach is the subject of the third Senate hearing on school nutrition re-authorization.
senator tom harkin

For most of the last decade, the debate about the nutritional consequences of vending-machine snacks and drinks in American schools has been separate from the issue of getting the National School Lunch Program to provide healthy school breakfasts, lunches, and snacks. Last Tuesday, Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, changed the debate.

Harkin is holding hearings in advance of drafting a re-authorization of federal child nutrition programs. Current law expires September 30. Last Tuesday’s hearing focused on how to pull non-government-funded school food programs into line with the nutritional standards of the federal school meal programs.

In his opening statement, Harkin argued, “We know from surveys and common experience that the majority of our schools offer children ready access to heavily sweetened beverages, highly salted snacks, sugary and high-fat goods, and candy…We know from research what any parent understands from common sense—that junk food obtained from vending machines, snack bars, school stores, or à la carte lines is far less nutritious and far less nutritionally balanced than meals that meet USDA standards.” Unlike USDA-sponsored meals, none of all those other foods and beverages sold in schools needs to meet nutrition standards.

Harkin’s conclusion signals a new approach to vending machines. “Clearly, these sales undermine the $11.5 billion investment that taxpayers will make this year in nutritious school lunches and breakfasts, but even worse, they are damaging the health and lives of our nation’s kids.”

Under federal law, schools are required to keep track of the nutritional standards of all food sold on school grounds, including food and drinks sold in vending machines. Standards for meals provided under the National School Lunch Program are updated regularly. But nutrition standards for foods sold outside the program have not been updated since 1979.

Among witnesses at the hearing, Byron Garrett, CEO of the National Parent Teacher Association (PTA), led the effort to put revised federal standards for vending-machine snacks into the new law. “A minimum federal protective nutrition standard for food sold outside of school meals is necessary,” he said, “to protect the integrity of the school lunch program and the health of all children in our nation’s public schools.” Garrett found support from Hank Izzo, vice president of Mars Snackfood U.S., who pointed out that “schools operate in a unique environment that warrants special treatment when it comes to nutrition standards. At home, parents make decisions about food—but at school, children often make decisions about what to eat for themselves.”

Testifying on behalf of the National School Boards Association, Reggie Felton urged the Committee to “refrain from enacting legislation that would further restrict the authority and flexibility of local school boards.” Felton also said that “Such restrictions would in all likelihood increase student purchases beyond school grounds, and could potentially “increase misunderstandings and complaints from parents regarding the banning of certain foods” while allowing others.

NOTE: Two previous Committee hearings on March 4, 2009, and December 8, 2008, focused on the obesity epidemic and other diet-related health problems for American children. For more information, visit

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