The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

41° Stony Brook, NY
The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman


    Nationwide, Public Schools Turn a Profit on Cafeteria Food

    It’s 2 o’clock in the afternoon and 15-year-old Chris Vlasaty’s last meal was the cafeteria special — a slice of pizza and large side of fries — nearly four hours ago.

    Now he has exactly 30 minutes to muster his belongings and grab a snack that will nourish his muscles before dashing to football practice where he will be required to perform 20 40-yard sprints in under 10-seconds, each as a mere warm-up.

    The familiar trudge to one of the hallway vending machines, the only food source after school hours, provides Chris with his routine power meal: 11 grams of fat, six grams of trans fat and 22 grams of sugar in his favorite candy bar.

    “I usually get a Nestle’s Crunch bar because I need to eat something before practice and there is nothing healthy in the vending machines,” the Smithtown High School East varsity football player said. “It doesn’t make me feel good, but it’s better than eating nothing.” Districts nationwide have been grappling with how to generate a profit from school food, while still respecting students’ health and wellness.

    Administrators have been trying to provide meals and snacks to students that will both satisfy and nourish them, while making enough money off of the food to subsidize the cost of other educational commodities.

    Computers, field trips, sports programs and extracurricular activities are costly for the district, and food sales are among their strongest options for making money.

    These arrangements have parents and school wellness committees on edge. As obesity continues to rise and has already plagued an estimated 23 million children nationwide, parents worry that many vending machine snacks will help contribute to that number. In addition, many of the snacks contain high levels of trans fat, an artery-clogging ingredient that is used to lengthen shelf life and improve flavor and texture.

    Trans fat is known to lower levels of “good” cholesterol and increase risk for heart disease, according to the American Heart Association. If eliminated in just 3 percent of breads and cakes and 15 percent of cookies and crackers, trans fat could save up to $59 billion in health care costs in the next 20 years, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration predicts.

    Sugar is another abundant ingredient in vending machine snacks and drinks. An 11.5 ounce can of Snapple has approximately 170 calories, which is equivalent to 10 teaspoons of sugar — an amount that takes up just below half the amount of space in the can. If just one Snapple is consumed each week, that adds up to more than four pounds of pure sugar pure year.

    But in 2003, the average American downed approximately a gallon of soft drinks per week, ending off the year with more sugary drinks to fill the average bathtub.

    “We’re very passionate about health and wellness and we’re not in a battle with the wellness committee,” said Smithtown Superintendent Ed Ehmann. “But at the end of the day we have to make sure the food is healthy but will also be foods that the kids will eat.”

    At least 15 states have organized task forces or wellness committees that are studying nutrition issues, according to a survey by the Education Commission of the States.

    Though no states have outright banned the sale of sodas, West Virginia has mandated that half the beverages in high school vending machines be juices and water while California has required public hearings before schools can renew their vending contracts since 2003.

    “We’re not trying to take their revenue away,” said Janelle Kildale, a Smithtown Wellness Committee member and mother of three. “We just want to see healthier choices and the PTA has agreed to support them financially with fundraising throughout the year.”

    Smithtown School District has devised a nutritional plan that divides the day into two parts: school and after-school. Vending machines, which do not turn on until approximately 1 o’clock, are considered an after-school asset. Their purpose is to provide concession snacks for after-school sports teams and those who attend the games, according to Ehmann.

    But athletes like Chris have been using the snacks to fuel their bodies before they even hit the field. And students have access to virtually the same snacks before one o’clock from a la carte and the school store. These inconsistencies enrage many parents and wellness committee members.

    “People ranked Smithtown food choices without doing a ton of research,” Ehmann, who accepted the position of superintendent two years ago, admitted in a low voice. “But I do try and make sure the choices are in the parameters of healthy life choices. I don’t want to make an artificial situation.”

    Wellness committee member Christine Santori, who is also a registered dietitian and bariatrics specialist, has brought much of her “frightening” findings and research to the table.

    At a recent meeting, she spoke about “diabesity,” the new phrase coined by the Centers for Disease Control to illustrate the rising trend of obesity related diabetes. Of the children born in the year 2000, one in three Caucasians and one in two African-Americans and Hispanics will develop the disease, and many before they graduate high school, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention predicts.

    “It seems to me that our schools are almost trying to sabotage any attempt at healthy eating,” Santori said. “We, as school districts, need to take the lead and provide nutrition education and healthy food items. Children should not have the burden of adult choices. It is our responsibility to set them up for success and support them in healthy eating.”

    While Ehmann is not in complete opposition to the changes, he finds himself in a conflicting situation with the vending machine company. Beverage distributors, especially those affiliated with Coke and Pepsi, offer schools lucrative contracts that include signing bonuses, a share in machine profits and perks such as athletic scoreboards, according to the American Association of School Administrators.

    Seven years ago, Quick Snack Vending Company agreed to fund Smithtown $300,000 for outdoor football field lights, which they promised to pay back by selling the company’s snacks. Chris was only in elementary school when Smithtown signed the deal with the vending company, and now, as a high school sophomore, he and other Smithtown students are helping the district out of its deficit one unhealthy snack at a time.

    “I take it very personally,” said Kildale, who has formulated her own list of healthy snacks that she’d like to see in the vending machines and submitted it to her son’s principal. “I can’t stand that children are being used for someone else’s benefit, it’s just so sad.”

    Currently, Smithtown is trying to cut out all sugary drinks containing high fructose corn syrup. Like West Virginia, Ehmann is hoping to change all the vending machine drinks to water and fruit juices that are low in sugar and artificial flavoring this year. But wellness committee members have noted that these changes have taken a while and they fear that administrators are not taking their requests seriously.

    “I’ve got 24 schools,” Ehmann said. “The wellness committee members always want three steps higher than what we already have.”

    But the possibility of change reigns approximately eight miles away, where Commack School District has made noteworthy transformations. They now offer vegetable burgers, baked fries, more plant based food, and have cut back significantly on vending machine snacks that are high in sugar and trans-fat.

    Other schools around the nation have also sustained vegetable gardens to cultivate learning and healthier eating habits.

    “Change is never easy,” Santori said. “But we owe it to our kids to make sure that they are not the first generation to live a shorter life span than their parents.”

    Leave a Comment
    Donate to The Statesman

    Your donation will support the student journalists of Stony Brook University. Your contribution will allow us to purchase equipment and cover our annual website hosting costs.

    More to Discover
    Donate to The Statesman

    Comments (0)

    All The Statesman Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *