Hooked on "Caramel-Colored Gold"

Delta Winds cover 2002Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student Essays
A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College


Hooked on "Caramel-Colored Gold"

Melody Nelson

" 'A sound mind in a sound body' is a short but full description of a happy state in this world. He that has these two, has little more to wish for . . ." -- John Locke.

As mortal beings, maintaining good health can mean the difference between success and failure, joy and pain, life and death. For more than thirty years, the Surgeon General and the Department of Health and Human Services have spent billions of our tax dollars to educate the nation about the negative effects of poor nutrition. Statistics show that poor nutrition causes "untold personal suffering, and accounts for astronomical health care costs . . . . [A]s the diseases of nutritional deficiency have diminished, they have been replaced by diseases of dietary excess and imbalance-problems that now rank among the leading causes of illness and death in the United States" (Koop 3).

In response to our nation's health crisis, our federal government has sponsored programs to educate and regulate the sale of "junk food" in our nation's schools. A report from the Department of Health and Human Services says that even a small decrease in junk food consumption would result in substantial benefits to our nation (3). But current national studies show that obesity is on the rise, and approximately 40% of school-aged children have an increased risk of heart disease (Evers 13). Despite the increased awareness of the benefits of good nutrition, we are a nation hooked on junk food, and many school administrators are taking advantage of the situation. Unless parents and teachers get involved, not only will our nation's children continue to be encouraged to sacrifice their health for education, but our public schools will become dependant on this "junk food" addiction to generate revenue.

In Washington County, Utah, school administrators defend their current policy allowing vending machines because they say the students are going to eat junk food anyway, so the schools might as well be the ones that benefit. Furthermore, they say it keeps the kids from going off campus. They are convinced that parents and faculty do not have the time to get involved in fund raisers in order to earn the extra money needed for education (Henderson).

There is no question that a substantial amount of cash can be generated by selling junk food to students. At Desert Hills Intermediate School (DHIS), a school whose enrollment consists of about 1,000 sixth and seventh grade students, the total profit for the eight vending machines is $21,855/year. That's a lot of junk food (Nelson).

Vern Jensen, a teacher at DHIS, believes that we are living in a permissive society, and it's not worth the effort to try to keep candy and pop out of school (Jensen). If the parents and teachers don't take a stand, then maybe he is right. But, maybe parents who are not concerned about what their children eat at school do not understand the long term costs of poor nutrition. Apparently, the school administrators need to investigate the long-term consequences as well.

Experience tells us that if the junk food weren't available, most of the students would choose food that is healthier. One student admits buying some chips and a Pepsi, even though her mother packed her some yogurt, cookies, and an apple because she says "it's fast and it's filling" (Nakamura A01). Another teacher reminds us that "many of the students at the sixth and seventh grade levels do not make wise decisions, especially regarding nutrition. As educators we have the responsibility to help them be wise consumers as well as healthy citizens" (Loveland).

Some parents and teachers advocate selling healthy snacks. The problem is that the kids are not hooked on nutrition; they are hooked on sugar and caffeine. Schools have reported that when nutritious snacks were put in vending machines, sadly, the revenues dropped (Nakamura A01). The schools sell junk food so they can finance the purchase of such things as computers, teacher training, and other educational supplies. But is the extra revenue worth the increased health risks? Jill Barcum, a writer for the Minneapolis-Star Tribune says, "This year the average American will guzzle 54 gallons of Coke, Pepsi, Mountain Dew and other fizzy beverages . . . . This is three times the amount consumed per capita in the 1970's . . . . Health related diseases in America are on the rise."

There is no question that the junk food sold in vending machines promotes poor nutrition. A study found that about 40% of America's children had intakes of less than half the recommended amounts of folate, vitamin D, calcium, iron, magnesium, selenium, zinc, and many other minerals (Sizer and Whitney). Researchers found that brain function may be sensitive to borderline deficiencies of many other nutrients, a conclusion supported by many previous findings. With the onset of adolescence, needs for all nutrients become greater than at any other time of life, except during pregnancy or lactation. When students fill up on pop and candy, they literally have "spoiled their appetites." The high amount of empty calories, in the form of carbohydrates, the most common one being sugar, satisfies their satiety center in their brain, and they simply are not hungry when lunchtime arrives (Sizer and Whitney 280-2).

Lack of iron is the most widespread nutrition problem for children and adolescents, despite the iron fortification of foods and other programs to combat this deficiency. An iron deficiency causes an energy crisis in the body and can have a negative effect on behavior, mood, attention span, and learning ability. The need for iron is especially great in supporting menstruation in girls and in developing lean body mass in boys. Again, allowing students to consume sugar in lieu of healthy snacks lessens their ability to learn. The cost for special schooling, and rehabilitation of individuals who get behind in their school studies is in the billions of dollars. Granted, there are many factors that result in a child's failing in school, but poor nutrition is one of those factors that could be minimized or even eliminated.

Adolescence is also a crucial time for bone development. The bones are gaining density, laying down the calcium that may make the difference between weak and strong bones later in life. Soft drinks contain phosphoric acid. Some studies suggest that too much phosphoric acid, particularly when a person is not getting enough calcium, may trigger a process that lowers calcium levels in the blood (Dunne 248). Other health experts explain:

To compensate, the body mobilizes calcium from the bones and uses it elsewhere. The caffeine in pop, which can contain 50 milligrams or more of this stimulant in a 12-ounce can, may similarly affect calcium levels. Excess caffeine may cause the kidneys to rid the body of more calcium than it should. The result may be that the calcium needed by your bones winds up in the urine (Barcum).

Another hidden cost of the use of vending machines involves the extra time it takes to clean up the school. One custodian at DHIS is convinced that the additional cleanup required due to the increased candy wrappers, pop cans, and sticky messes cost the school approximately $25,000 per year (Nelson). In other words, each school has to hire another full-time custodian just to take care of the increased work load. Also, has anyone ever totaled the amount of school hours a child misses because he or she is ill? Good nutrition could make a difference. Surveys show that most teachers do not support the sale of junk food in the schools (Nelson). Even though teachers have the advantage of being with our children for a good part of the day, they still need help. We, as parents and community members, can help them organize student or teacher committees, educate other students, teachers, and administrators, or start petitions to get the entire community involved. We support the PTA. We support the anti-drug program. We can support the cause against junk food. There are science fairs, reading fairs, creative art fairs; why not a "Nutrition Fair," with prizes available for the students with the best, most ingenious displays? We can help students get more excited about being healthy by showing them how good nutrition makes them stronger, smarter and better looking, but remember the presence of vending machines counteracts such efforts (Evers 83).

Parents, in agreement with state and federal regulations, have tried to reach a compromise, insisting that the machines be turned off until after lunch. Still, school administrators argue that if vending machines were off limits until after lunch, the revenues would drop (Fisher B01). It seems that the thousands of dollars that are coming their way are obstructing their vision. They are failing to see the big picture. The presence of junk food machines sends conflicting messages to our children.

Marc Fisher, a writer for the Washington Post, reports that soda companies lure the principals into signing contracts which violate state rules by offering sports equipment and other "goodies." Fisher described one principal as willing to "grab a few extra shekels for his school, [as] he committed to hedging the law and luring students into buying more fattening swill" (B01). These contracts force the principals to promise that ads will be placed around the school, and that machines will be available for students at all times. Even Channel One, which all students are required to watch so the schools can get free video equipment, includes two minutes of candy and acne-cream ads. These principals think that the parents are grateful for these contracts because it keeps the schools in the "black" financially. Fisher relates his experience at a public hearing where he watched "a sad parade of principals, [as they] begged lawmakers not to squelch their flow of caramel-colored gold" (B01).

Despite the increased awareness of the benefits of good nutrition we are a nation hooked on junk food, and administrators of our schools are taking advantage. School contracts with big companies such as Pepsi and Coca-Cola are on the increase. These contracts require the schools push sales as soda manufacturers offer additional "end of month" bonuses. For example, administrators of High Point High School in Beltsville, Maryland, signed an agreement with the Mid-Atlantic Coca-Cola Bottling Company, Inc. and Monumental Vending. The contract with Coca-Cola requires the school to sell a minimum of 4,500 cases of soda per year. They are also required to advertise Coke products on all menu boards. Coke also has exclusive rights at athletic games. Monumental requires a minimum number of vending machines to be placed in the schools, and that they be available to students at all times "except where not permitted by state or federal regulations." Even though Maryland has regulations prohibiting the use of the machines during lunch, these regulations are often being ignored (Nakamura A01). A school district in Florida reported losing $450,000 in sales when vending machines were turned off until one hour after lunch ("School Vending Machines").

Since most of the products sold by Pepsi and Coca-Cola contain significant amounts of caffeine, school administrators who sign these contracts are promoting the use of a legal, but addictive, drug. In essence, they are saying, "Even though soda and junk food are bad for your body, and may cause you serious health problems in the future, the school needs more money. So, if you are going to buy it, buy it from us." Demoree Johnson, department head of Nutrition and Family Sciences at Dixie State College, believes that any one of the reasons listed above would constitute all the proof that is needed to justify removing the vending machines from the school. She is convinced that this issue is "a no-brainer." Allowing vending machines in schools just complicates the problem of poor nutrition in the lives of the students (Johnson). Our challenge is to convince the school administrators that the increased revenue is not worth sacrificing their integrity. We need to make sure that the administrators of these schools realize they are promoting poor health habits to the children whose future they were hired to enhance.

In the Washington County School District's front office is a sign that reads, "We proceed on the basis on what is best for the child," not "what is best for the school's pocketbook." Is there a conflict of interest that keeps these machines in the schools? A budget cut, as a result of lost revenue, could jeopardize someone's job. Not very many people are willing to sacrifice their own job for the good of all. The presence of vending machines in our schools has proved to lower the quality of the learning environment and is not "best for the child." Because these machines have been allowed, these administrators have, in essence, failed our children and the taxpayers. They need to be reminded that our tax dollars are paying their salaries. By allowing vending machines in the schools they are breaking their own rules.

Basically, this issue is about integrity. The school administrators seem to be willing to sacrifice theirs for money. Fisher's experience has shown us that many school administrators will not give up this revenue without a fight. But there is hope. Parent groups in Philadelphia have successfully blocked a 43-million dollar contract with Coca-Cola, and others have forced schools to sell only nutritious snacks during lunch (Nakamura A01). An organization called CATCH (Child and Adolescent Trail for Cardiovascular Health) has also successfully improved the eating and exercise habits of students that participated in the program (Danzig).

Think of it this way: How many pet owners would support a kennel that offered their "family pet" junk food? Are we guilty of caring more about our animals than our children? Our greatest natural resource for tomorrow is the child of today, and certainly, the money invested in our children gives everyone a better chance in the future. Our children trust us to do everything in our power to increase their chances for success. Robert Louis Stevenson said, "Sooner or later we all sit down to a banquet of consequences." Making money off the poor eating habits of America's children could result in consequences that are more costly in the end. Eliminating or limiting vending machines in our nation's schools is an important first step in showing our children that we care enough about their future to say "no" to junk food.

Works Cited

Barcum, Jill. "Pop Mania Could Put Nation at Risk of an Epidemic of Osteoporosis." The Minneapolis Star-Tribune 10 August 1999.

Danzig, Amy. "Children Catch on to Heart-Health Messages." National Institute of Health. 1999: Online. Internet. 4 April 2001. Available http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/ new/press/jul14-99.htm.

Dunne, Lavon J. Nutrition Almanac. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1990.

Evers, C. How to Teach Nutrition to Kids. Tigard, OR: 24 Carrot Press, 1995.

Fisher, Marc. "Easy Cash Eroding Their Principles." Washington Post. 9 Feb. 2001: B01.

Henderson, B. Written Response. Dec 2000.

Jensen, Vern. Written response. December 2000.

Johnson, Demorree. Personal Interview, 2000.

Koop, C. E. The Surgeon General Report on Nutrition. NY: Warner Books, 1988.

Loveland, Tina. Written response. November 2000.

Nakamura, David. "Schools Hooked on Junk Food." Washington Post. 12 Feb. 2001: A01.

Nelson, Richard. Personal Interview. April 2001.

"School Vending Machines-Food for Thought." Online. Internet. 9 March 2001. Available http://www.pdlab.com/vendingmachine.htm.

Sizer, F., and Whitney, E. Nutrition Concepts and Controversies. USA: Wadsworth, 2000.