Healthier eating could mean the end of soda vending machines in public middle and high schools in Fairfax County.
According to school officials, soda machines are turned on only after school hours and during weekends and holidays. But parent advocates for healthier diets say having the machines in schools sends the wrong message to students.
“Even if it is not available during the school day, it’s still there, advertised all day,” said JoAnne Hammermaster, president of the parent advocacy group Real Food for Kids. Hammermaster has a seventh-grader at Kilmer Middle School and a freshman at Marshall High School. “We’ve always said at some point we wanted to talk about vending machines. We believe there is no need for sodas in schools.”
About 70 percent of sodas sold through vending machines in schools are regular soft drinks; 30 percent are diet or zero-calorie drinks. Hammermaster said no matter their sugar content, the fizzy drinks are bad for digestion and need to go.
School Board member Ryan McElveen (At Large) is leading the effort to remove soda sales in schools. A 2004 graduate of Marshall High School, McElveen said the soda vending machine policies have not changed since his time in high school.
“I don’t want to take away the [vending] machines. I want to substitute [sodas] with something healthier,” he said, adding that booster clubs and student organizations sometimes sell sodas outside the vending option. “We are not currently allowed to sell sodas [through vending] in our schools during the school day.”
Promoting alternative vending choices in schools would help promote similar behaviors for students outside of schools, McElveen said.
“In my opinion, to teach kids how to live healthy lives, we need to offer them options,” he said.
Parents are joining McElveen’s efforts.
“I think [removing soda] is a great thing. . . . Sodas are one example of something that isn’t terrible, but it doesn’t provide you with any nutrition,” McLean resident and parent Rick Barnard said.
In 2011, Barnard served on Superintendent Jack D. Dale’s Nutrition Task Force, a panel of parents, residents and staff members.
Barnard said that the panel focused primarily on the content of school-provided lunches but that sodas and vending of treats should be part of the discussion.
He became involved with student nutrition a few years ago after seeing national movements such as First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign and celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s show, “Jamie’s School Dinners,” which promotes better nutrition.
“All of these things sort of started happening at the exact same time,” Barnard said, adding that similar trends were seen in Fairfax County.
In fiscal 2012, schools with vending machines received $114,604, of which $31,976 went to sports scoreboard repairs. During the 2011-12 year, more than 430,000 soft drinks were sold from 139 vending machines in 28 school facilities, according to the school system.
“Soda consumption among our youth is a huge concern,” Alexandria resident and Hollin Meadows Elementary mother Mary Porter said.
“Sodas have addictive properties. They are dehydrating, and they can disrupt the hormones that regulate the body’s messages of hunger and satiation. They are junk food. . . . The only benefit to them in an academic setting is generating revenue.”
Porter said removing sodas is an opportunity to bolster nutrition literacy among students. Herndon mother Heather Metz agreed.
“What children are taught early on stays with them,” said Metz, who has children attending Armstrong Elementary and Herndon High School.
“Kids are constantly exposed to marketing and have overworked parents who may not be cooking healthful meals at home, making nutrition education in schools extremely important. I would like to see schools set the best example possible.”
McElveen said the next step will be gaining community input and discussions with fellow School Board members. Officials are reviewing food services within the school system.