In many schools, the traditional school lunch of milk, entrée, vegetable, and dessert isn't the only option for hungry students. Students may be able to choose from a salad or sandwich bar, or they may opt for pizza, hamburgers, and other foods sold a la carte. Vending machines may provide snacks or drinks, and in some cases, the school store may offer candy, cookies, and chips to students during the lunch hour and between classes. But how popular are these foods available at school - and what do they contribute to students?
Researchers from Pennsylvania State University in University Park surveyed 228 school food-service directors in Pennsylvania about foods offered in school outside the traditional school lunch program. They reported how much revenue their schools received from vending machine foods, a la carte items, and school store sales each day. They also noted the most popular foods available from vending machines, a la carte, in school stores, and through school club fundraisers.
Eighty-five percent of the school districts in the survey received no school funding to support their lunch programs. On average, each school generated almost $700 a day from the sale of a la carte food items. In addition, 94% of the schools offered students access to vending machines; many of the schools surveyed also had school stores that sold food and club fundraisers that involved selling food items.
Food service directors reported that the most popular a la carte items included pizza, hamburgers, or sandwiches, followed by cookies, crackers, cakes, pastries, or other baked goods not low in fat. Although the a la carte items often included more healthful foods such as milk, salads, fruit, or low-fat or nonfat yogurt, these items weren't as popular.
School stores reported items such as candy bars, candy, cookies, and chips as top sellers. And the most popular type of club fundraiser was selling chocolate candy. But when it came to vending machines, the top-selling items were more nutritious, such as bottled water.
What This Means to You: School food-service programs face a difficult dilemma - many programs need to be self-supporting, so they need to appeal to the tastes of students to make money. But, as this study indicates, the top-selling non-school lunch foods aren't necessarily the most nutritious, which can affect the health and wellness of students. What can you do? If your child buys lunch at school, you can encourage him or her to buy the school lunch, which may need to meet National School Lunch Program nutrient standards. If he or she misses a meal or doesn't like the day's lunch selection, encourage him or her to choose less popular - but healthier - a la carte or vending machine selections, such as salad, low-fat or nonfat yogurt or milk, and fruits instead.
Source: Claudia Probart, PhD, RD; Elaine McDonnell, MS, RD; J. Elaine Weirich, Med; Terryl Hartman, PhD, MPH, RD; Lisa Bailey-Davis, MA, RD; Vaheedha Prabhakher, MS, RD; Journal of the American Dietetic Association, August 2005
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: August 2005