This House would ban junk food from schools.

Junk food is defined by Segen’s Medical Dictionary as “A popular term for any food which is low in essential nutrients and high in everything else—in particular calories and sodium. Junk foods are often highly salted—e.g., potato chips/crisps, pretzels—high in refined carbohydrates (empty calories)—e.g., candy, soft drinks—and high in saturated fats—e.g., cake, chocolates”.[1] Individual school governing bodies are however likely to come up with their own definitions of what exactly constitutes junk food for their ban.

Childhood obesity- defined as a body-mass index at or above the 95th percentile for children of the same age and sex, was diagnosed among approximately 15 percent of children and adolescents in the United States in the period from 1999 through 2002. According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys, the prevalence of overweight children doubled between 1976–1980 and 1999–2002. Although the prevalence of overweight among blacks, Mexican Americans, and Native Americans exceeds that of other ethnic groups, obesity has increased among both sexes and among all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups.[2]

Childhood obesity is associated with a variety of adverse consequences. Type-2 diabetes now accounts for up to 45 percent of all newly diagnosed diabetic disorders in pediatric patients. Conditions associated with excess weight, such as sleep apnea and gallbladder disease, tripled in children and adolescents between 1979–1981 and 1997–1999. Although childhood-onset obesity accounts for only 25 percent of adult obesity, overweight that begins before age eight and persists into adulthood is associated with a mean body-mass index of 41 in adulthood, as compared with a body-mass index of 35 for adult-onset obesity.1

Researchers and public health officials are currently at a loss to explain the rapid rise in weight problems among children and adolescents that began in the 1980s. Concerns about the long-term health consequences of being overweight have ignited a debate about school policies that make junk food available to students in school.[3]

The proponents of the idea that school lunches are inexorably linked to the childhood obesity epidemic rally behind much publicized campaigns, such as the one initiated by the first lady Michelle Obama called “Let’s Move”. Even though this seems to be a popular and intuitively appealing notion, there are two important questions being raised by its opponents: is the notion correct and are the schools, or rather school lunches, really the ones we should be targeting?

In September 2006, partly influenced by the campaigning activities of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, some schools in the United Kingdom implemented a new approach to preparing and sourcing pupils’ meals. This policy requires that caterers ensure that high-quality meat, poultry or oily fish is provided with each meal, alongside at least two servings of fruit and vegetables.[4]    

Another approach to banning junk food is also the banning of vending machines with junk food. The new dispensers in the UK, through a government funded project, switched from sweets and junk in the vending machines (which is present in 95 per cent of secondary schools) to milk, fruit, water and other healthy products to buy.[5]

Such an approach, where the government takes care of the meals and also preventing the offer of junk in schools is a way how to do it also in other countries. 

[1] ‘Junk Food’ Segen's Medical Dictionary, 2011,, accessed 20 September 2011

[2] Dietz, W. H., Robinson T. N., 'Overweight Children and Adolescents', 19 May 2005,, accessed 9/11/2011

[3] Gorman, L., 'Junk Food Availability in Schools Raises Obesity', 5 September 2011,, accessed 9/11/2011

[4]BBC News, 'Junk food to be banned in school meals', 19 May 2006, accessed 09/08/2011

[5]Hope J., 'Vending machines banned', The Daily Mail,, accessed 09/08/2011


Schools need to practice what they preach

Under the pressure of increasing media coverage and civil society initiatives, schools are being called upon to “take up arms” against childhood obesity, both by introducing more nutritional and physical education classes, as well as transforming the meals they are offering in their cafeterias.[1]

Never before has school been so central to a child’s personal and social education. According to a study conducted by the University of Michigan, American children and teenagers spend in school about 32.5 hours per week homework a week – 7.5 hours more, than 20 years ago[2]. School curricula now cover topics such as personal finance, sex and relationships and citizenship. A precedent for teaching pupils about living well and living responsibly has already been established. Some schools, under national health programs, have given out free milk and fruit to try and make sure that children get enough calcium and vitamins, in case they are not getting enough at home[3].

While we are seeing various nutritional and health food curricula cropping up[4], revamping the school lunch is proving to be a more challenging task. “Limited resources and budget cuts hamper schools from offering both healthful, good-tasting alternatives and physical education programs,“ says Sanchez-Vaznaugh, a San Francisco State University researcher.[5]

With expert groups such as the Obesity Society urging policy makers to take into account the complex nature of the obesity epidemic[6], especially the interplay of biological and social factors that lead to individuals developing the disease, it has become time for governments to urge schools to put their education into practice and give students an environment that allows them to make the healthy choices they learn about in class.

[1] Stolberg, S. G., 'Michelle Obama Leads Campaign Against Obesity', New York Times, 9 February 2010,, accessed 9/11/2011

[2]University of Michigan, 'U.S. children and teens spend more time on academics', 17 November 2004,, accessed 09/08/2011

[3] Kent County Council, Nutritional Standards, published September 2007, accessed 09/08/2011

[4] Veggiecation, 'The Veggiecation Program Announced as First Educational Partner of New York Coalition for Healthy School Food',18 May 2011,, accessed 9/11/2011

[5] ScienceDaily, 'Eliminating Junk Foods at Schools May Help Prevent Childhood Obesity', 7 March 2010,, accessed 9/11/2011

[6] Kushner, R. F., et al., 'SOLUTIONS: Eradicating America’s obesity epidemic', Washington Times, 16 August 2009,, accessed 9/11/2011


Media sensationalism is a poor justification for any state intervention of any kind. What histrionic television documentaries usually provide nothing more than a warning that our kids are in danger, along with a list of all the diseases obesity might cause. But there is absolutely nothing that would explain how exactly something as drastic as a ban would do anything to begin solving this problem.

These observations highlight a distressing truth about contemporary western society – we are unable to accept that the state is unable to solve problems without the assistance and support of civil society. We have a hard time accepting the fact that responsibility will have to fall on the shoulders of parents to enforce (or, more likely, to adopt in the first place) a healthy and active lifestyle in their families.

Advice provided by the Mayo Clinic explains that just talking isn’t effective. Kids and parents should go together for a brisk walk, ride on the bike or any other activity. It is important for a healthy lifestyle that parents present exercise as an opportunity to take care for the body, rather than a punishment or chore[1].

Finally, there is absolutely nothing stopping schools from offering healthier options alongside existing ones. In fact, many schools are choosing a healthier path already, without being forced by governments or regulatory bodies.

[1], 'Fitness for kids: Getting children off the couch',, accessed 09/10/2011

Schools are the best place to create lasting lifestyle changes.

Schools are playing an increasingly formative role, in the sense that they’re being tasked with not only knowledge transfer, but also the creation of behaviors and placing emphasis on teaching students how to apply their knowledge.[1]

Given this expanded mandate, the schools are not only obliged to therefore offer choices that would go hand in hand with healthier behavior, but also the perfect pressure point for lawmakers to go about introducing healthier lifestyles.

The simple reason is that our kids are increasingly looking not to their parents, but schools and the environments they provide, for advice on how to live their lives. They are also the traditional environments for youth to continuously invent and reinvent themselves and therefore hold immense potential for behavior modification.

[1] Fitzgerald, E., 'Some insights on new role of schools', New York Times, 21 January 2011,, accessed 9/11/2011


Given all the responsibilities our society has transferred from parents onto schools and educators in the 21st century, is it really sensible to include caring for nutritional choices to this already bloated and unmanageable list?

We need to ask ourselves, is it actually right that kids turn to schools and peers about lifestyle advice, when this is so clearly a domain of parents and families and so obviously a burden on an already taxed public school system.

Better nutrition leads to better students.

There is a growing body of evidence linking a healthy lifestyle, comprising of both adequate nutrition and physical exercise, with improved memory, concentration and general academic performance.[1] A study has shown that when primary school students consume three or more junk food meals a week literacy and numeracy scores dropped by up to 16% compared to the average.[2]

This is a clear incentive for governments to push forward for healthier meals in schools for two reasons. The first obvious benefit is to the student, whose better grades award her improved upward mobility – especially important for ethnic groups stuck worst by the obesity epidemic and a lower average socioeconomic status.

The second benefit is to the schools, who benefit on standardized testing scores and reduced absenteeism, as well as reduced staff time and attention devoted to students with low academic performance or behavior problems and other hidden costs of low concentration and performance of students.[3]

[1] CDC, 'Student Health and Academic Achievement', 19 October 2010,, accessed 9/11/2011

[2] Paton, Graeme, ‘Too much fast food ‘harms children’s test scores’’, The Telegraph, 22 May 2009, accessed 20 September 2011

[3] Society for the Advancement of Education, 'Overweight students cost schools plenty', December 2004,;content, 9/11/2011


Again, if this is in fact true, then the incentives are already in place for better choices both on the side of students as well as schools.

What the government should do is through subsidizing healthier meals and educational campaigns help both of them make those choices on their own, and not force an unnecessary ban on them.

Schools should educate about healthy choices, not make them on the students’ behalf.

Although it might be very tempting for the government to try and attack the problem of childhood obesity by attempting to change, in essence, the very choices our kids can make, this is the wrong way of going about doing it.

The purpose of schools is education – the genesis of active and useful members of society. A large extent of what schools do is imprinting the ideas the society values. In most western countries those would be the ideas of fairness, democracy, freedom of expression, etc. The other side of the coin is the transference of knowledge, knowledge of mathematics, history, but also of biology, health and nutrition.

We see thus that the proposed ban on specific choices one makes in school, whether be it choices regarding food or choices regarding the clothes one wears, the ideas one expresses, and so on, is truly meaningless in the existing concept of education.

What the schools should be doing is putting more emphasis on getting the message of the importance of a healthy lifestyle across. Our kids should be taught that this lifestyle consists of more than just whether or not we chose to eat a hamburger and fries for lunch. In short, this ban falls short of truly educating the children about how important physical activity, balanced meals and indulging in moderation are.

They should also focus on the importance of choice, since in the case of childhood obesity, making the right nutritional and lifestyle choices is of paramount importance. But they should also focus on the importance of choice for a society and how all should take responsibility for their choices in such a society.


We would be truly hard pressed to find a student, who isn’t very well aware of all the reasons we call certain food “junk food” and what the consumption of those does to the human body.

We already have fantastic mechanism of nutritional education in place and many very publicized campaigns stressing the importance of a healthy lifestyle. Yet what we don’t have are the results – obviously educating the public is not enough.

When we are faced with an epidemic that has such an immense destructive potential, we truly must face it head on and forget about well-intended yet extremely impractical principled arguments – such as the one proposed by the opposition.

What we need is results, and armed with the knowledge won from the war on tobacco, we now know that limiting access is a key mechanism of taking on childhood obesity. 

Targeting schools will be an ineffective strategy.

Schools may seem like a perfect place to effect behavioral change in youth, since 95% of young people are enrolled in schools.[1]

But what researchers find is that changing the choices we have available does not necessarily lead to any behavioral change. Penny Gordon-Larsen, one of the researchers, wrote: "Our findings suggest that no single approach, such as just having access to fresh fruits and veggies, might be effective in changing the way people eat. We really need to look at numerous ways of changing diet behaviors. There are likely more effective ways to influence what people eat.”[2]

In the case of school children is this point seems particularly salient. Given that high school students in the US average only 6 hours in school[3] and the widespread availability of fast and other forms of “junk food”, we can hardly expect that impacting this single environment of the school will lead to any lasting behavioral changes. Realistically, what we can expect is for school children to go outside the school to find their favorite snacks and dishes.

Even if, by some miracle, the ban would change the behavior of children in schools, there is still the matter of 10 hours (the ATUS suggests kids sleep an average of 8 hours per day) they will spend outside schools, where their meal choices will not be as tailored and limited.

[1] Wechsler, H., et al., 'The Role of Schools in Preventing Childhood Obesity', National Association of State Boards of Education, December 2004,, accessed 9/11/2011

[2] Nordqvist, C., 'No Single Approach Will Solve America's Obesity Epidemic', Medical News Today, 11 June 2011,, accessed 9/11/2011

[3] Bureau of Labor Statistics, 'American Time Use Survey',  22 May 2011,, accessed 9/11/2011


Even if students spend a small fraction of their time in schools – and 6 hours is by no means an insignificant amount of time – it is still an incredible opportunity for intervention for a very important reason.

The reason is the incredible potential for homogeneity of experience. at least in the aspect of food offered. We are able, to certain extent, control the school environment in such a way as to promote healthy choices and eliminate bad ones. When students return to their homes, we have lost that opportunity. In a nutshell, one healthy meal per day is much better than none.

It can also be contended that children often share experiences from school with their parents and siblings back home. Thus a healthy environment in school could, potentially, find its way into homes we couldn’t otherwise reach by any other means.

“Junk food” sales are an important source of funding for schools.

An important issue to consider in this topic is the constellation of incentives that actually got us to the place where we are at today.

With the environment designed to incentivize improving schools’ performance on standardized tests, there is absolutely nothing that would motivate them to invest their very limited resources into non-core programs or subjects, such as PE and sports and other activities.[1]

Ironically, schools turned to soda and snack vending companies in order to increase their discretionary funds. An example cited in the paper is one high school in Beltsville, MD, which made $72,438.53 in the 1999-2000 school year through a contract with a soft drink company and another $26,227.49 through a contract with a snack vending company.  The almost $100,000 obtained was used for a variety of activities, including instructional uses such as purchasing computers, as well as extracurricular uses such as the yearbook, clubs and field trips.

Thus it becomes clear that the proposed ban is not only ineffective, but also demonstrably detrimental to schools and by extension their pupils.

[1] Anderson, P. M., 'Reading, Writing and Raisinets: Are School Finances Contributing to Children’s Obesity?', National Bureau of Economic Research, March 2005,, accessed 9/11/2011


There is absolutely nothing stopping the schools from finding ventures that are just as profitable with companies that offer healthy drinks and snacks.  In fact, most of the existing contracts could simply remain in place, since most of the firms are conglomerates that could just as easily offer healthy alternatives to soda pops and cookies.

Where that would prove impossible, it is simply a question of priorities: how many children afflicted by diabetes type 2 are worth a field trip? How many a new sports program or new equipment?

Pupils will bring unhealthy food with them to schools.

Frequently, a ban- whether or food, alcohol or forms of media- serves only to build interest in the things that has been prohibited. When a ban affects something that is a familiar part of everyday life that is generally regarded as benign, there is a risk that individuals may try to acquire the banned thing through other means.

Having had their perspective in junk food defined partly by attractive, highly persuasive advertising, children are likely to adopt an ambivalent perspective on any attempt to restrict their dietary choices. The extreme contrast between the former popularity of vending machines in schools and the austere approach required by new policies may hamper schools’ attempts to convince pupils of the necessity and rationality of their decision.

Even though schools may be able to coerce and compel their pupils to comply with disciplinary measures, they cannot stop children buying sweets outside of school hours.

When rules at an Orange county school changed,  and the cafeteria got rid of its sweets, the demand was still up high, so that the school had to figure out a way to fix the situation. They created a “candy cart” – which now brings them income for sports equipment or other necessities. One of the pupils, Edgar Coker (18-year-old senior) explained that: “If I couldn’t buy it here, I’d bring it from home.”[1]

It is difficult to regulate junk food consumption through unsophisticated measures such as prohibition. A ban my undermine attempts to alter pupil’s mindsets and their perspective on food marketing and their own diets.

[1]Harris G., 'A Federal Effort to Push Junk Food Out of School', New York Times, 2 August 2010, accessed 09/10/2011


First of all, such loop holes can be fixed and are just a problem of practicalities, if it helps to educate the pupils, we should do it. For example, there can be an agreement that parents should not buy candy for children to take to school or just restrict stores in the neighborhood to only selling junk food during school hours as they did in Tower Hamlets (UK).

In one school surveyed, all 1,700 pupils were obliged to follow strict rules stating 'no chips, fatty foods, sweets, fizzy drinks' can be sold at the school.

A nearby fast food shop was initially allowed to sell to pupils, but parents and teachers objected, fearing it would jeopardize the school's healthy-eating policy. One resident, Edward Copeland, was so angry that he brought the case to the High Court, where the court decided, that junk food stores are not be opened during school[1] hours to support the schools strict rules.  

[1]Borland S., 'Judges declare fast food takeaway near school is »unlawful«', The Daily Mail, 6 December 2010, accessed 09/10/2011


Single Author

Anderson, P. M., 'Reading, Writing and Raisinets: Are School Finances Contributing to Children’s Obesity?', National Bureau of Economic Research, March 2005, accessed 11 September 2011

Fitzgerald, E., 'Some insights on new role of schools', New York Times, 21 January 2011, accessed 11 September 2011

Gorman, L., 'Junk Food Availability in Schools Raises Obesity, National Bureau of Economic Research', 5 September 2011, accessed 11 September 2011

Harris, G., 'A Federal Effort to Push Junk Food Out of Schools', New York Times, 7 February 2010, accessed 11 September 2011

Muhammad, H., 'Junk food banned in school canteens', 21 May 2011, accessed 11 September 2011

Nordqvist, C., 'No Single Approach Will Solve America's Obesity Epidemic', Medical News Today, 11 July 2011, accessed 11 September 2011

Paton, Graeme, ‘Too much fast food ‘harms children’s test scores’’, The Telegraph, 22 May 2009, accessed 20 September 2011

Stolberg, S. G., 'Michelle Obama Leads Campaign Against Obesity', New York Times, 9 February 2010, accessed 20 September 2011


Multiple Authors/Organizations

Bureau of Labor Statistics, American Time Use Survey, 22 June 2011, accessed 9/11/2011

CDC, Student Health and Academic Achievement, 19 October 2010, accessed 9/11/2011

Dietz, W. H., and Robinson T. N., Overweight Children and Adolescents, The New England Journal of Medicine, 19 May 2005, accessed 9/11/2011

Kushner, R. F., et al., SOLUTIONS: Eradicating America’s obesity epidemic, Washington Times, 16 August 2009, accessed 9/11/2011

ScienceDaily, Eliminating Junk Foods at Schools May Help Prevent Childhood Obesity, 3 March 2010, accessed 9/11/2011

Segen's Medical Dictionary, ‘Junk Food’, 2011, accessed 20 September 2011

Society for the Advancement of Education, Overweight students cost schools plenty, December 2004, 9/11/2011

Veggiecation, The Veggiecation Program Announced as First Educational Partner of New York Coalition for Healthy School Food, 18 May 2011, accessed 9/11/2011

Wechsler, H., et al., The Role of Schools in Preventing Childhood Obesity, December 2004, accessed 9/11/2011