Obesity is a worldwide epidemic affecting more than 300 million people. It can lead to long-term medical issues such as diabetes, heart disease, and certain types of cancer. Junk food in school is not the only contributing factor to the condition, but it does make it easier for children to over-indulge in unhealthy choices, which in turn increases the risk of developing obesity. Many schools throughout the world are banning junk food from vending machines and school lunch menus to help combat the problem.
One of the main problems with junk food in school is that children are often unsupervised when making their lunch decisions. While there are typically school staff members supervising overall safety, no one stands with each child to ensure they are picking the healthiest options. If junk food is predominant on the menu, children are more likely to choose those options, especially if their junk food intake is strictly limited at home.
Vending machines are another large source of junk food in school, and another unsupervised chance for children to over-indulge. While the issue is not so severe in elementary schools, where children rarely stay after hours for activities, in the higher grades it becomes more of a concern. After-school activities often end close to or after the traditional dinner hour, and filling up on unhealthy vending machine snacks makes children less likely to eat a healthy evening meal.
A main concern with banning junk food in school is the cost involved in implementing the change, especially if the schools are required to replace the junk food with healthier options rather than just remove the offending food. The main reason less healthy food appears on school menus is that they typically cost less overall than fresh fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods. Processed foods last longer, while fresh foods need to be replaced on almost a daily basis.
In some cases, healthier options chosen by schools have just as many, if not more, calories as the unhealthy options. Fruit juice, for example, can be an issue for this reason; while one 8 ounce (approximately 0.24 liter) serving of apple juice contains 117 calories (kcal), the same size serving of cola contains 97 kcal. If reducing obesity is the primary concern, making switches to healthier foods alone will not help if the food contains more calories than the junk food option. It may help children break the cycle of sugar cravings, however, and introduce much-needed nutrients into their bodies that were previously lacking.
Despite the logistical problems of implementing a healthier food policy, removing as much junk food in school as possible does help children learn about making better meal choices and discover good-tasting healthy alternatives to their favorite sugary snacks. Researchers explain that eliminating junk food is not enough, however, and schools also need to implement physical education classes that explain to children the importance of exercising on an overall healthy lifestyle.