A modestly encouraging aspect to the present argument about the role of school snack sales in the reported rise in childhood and adolescent obesity is that our industry is not the only target of the critics. School administrators, self-op snack bar programs, major consumer packaged goods suppliers, and many others have come under attack.
Nevertheless, vendors often have been tarred with a broad brush. And they don't have to take it lying down. Vending always has been a local business, and successful operators almost always have strong roots in their communities. Operators can use this strength not only to defend their chosen profession, but also to help in identifying the real challenge and to propose remedies.
One vendor who has done this is Barry Frankel, founder and president of The Family Vending Co. (Sunrise, FL). His local paper, The Palm Beach Post, ran a story under the headline, "School Dilemma: Student Weight vs. Profit." The article evidently was prompted by a meeting of the Palm Beach County School District's school board, at which members discussed a report that the percentage of their students who are overweight exceeds the national average.
The article reported that the District has negotiated contracts with four companies who run vending machines in schools; that these contracts specify sales commissions of up to 35%; and that this revenue has become increasingly important to the schools as "the district grapples with budget woes and inadequate state funding."
The reporter also cited a health department analysis of school food that blamed a la carte cafeteria options, as well as the availability of snacks and soft drinks through vending machines. And she explained that only 8% of the district's elementary schools have daily recess, while just 20% offer the recommended 150 to 225 minutes of exercise weekly, in elementary and middle schools.
Frankel, the father of two school-age daughters, wrote to the newspaper recalling that kids always have snacked on candy, chips and soft drinks. This has been a constant. If obesity is rising, a variable must be identified. He believes it is the decline in physical education.
"When I went to school...physical education was a mandatory subject in order to graduate," he pointed out. "This is not the case any more." Of course, when today's parents were in school, they lacked the electronic diversions available to today's youngsters. "We were encouraged to go out and play, ride our bikes or walk. All the more reason for emphasis on physical education," Frankel suggested.
Writing as an expert, he told the paper that a school with 3,500-plus students may generate 300 vended snack sales per day. If fewer than 10% of students purchase a snack, then vending machines obviously cannot be blamed for causing up to 40% of 9th graders to be overweight. He noted that elementary schools have no vending machines, yet 19% of kindergartners reportedly are overweight. Vending machines in middle schools are controlled by timers; they cannot sell before and during lunch periods. Frankel has found that fewer than 5% of the students use them each day.
Frankel, a concerned parent in his own right, reported that he had attended a seminar conducted by a local school food and nutrition director. The speaker had pointed out that schools are overcrowded; students must wake up at 6:00 AM or 6:30 AM for classes that start as early as 7:30 AM, and many thus do not have time for breakfast. A surprising number do not eat lunch, either, simply because such large numbers descend on the cafeterias in such a short period of time, often less than 35 minutes. Even so, when the timers turn on the vending machines, they attract fewer than 10% of those hungry students. Something obviously is very wrong, and it isn't the presence of vending machines.
He concluded by stating that his own daughters are in good physical condition, and not because he denies them certain drinks and snacks. "They are physically active, and they choose their snacks," he said - sometimes bottled water and pretzels, sometimes a Coke and a candy bar. "And I am so happy that I am bringing them up in a land that allows that choice."
We think he's absolutely right. Attacks on vending, or snack bars, simply divert attention that would better be spent on understanding what really is going on.