A Proud Day for School Vending Machine Bans

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The first evidence that keeping vending machines out of middle schools is associated with decreased obesity

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Every time a new article comes out documenting the evils of vending machines in schools, someone in my family will inevitably forward it to me. Because it was a sore subject in my youth, and sore subjects in my youth are sore subjects for my parents indefinitely. But the study published today in Pediatrics may vindicate us, as we finally have evidence that keeping vending machines out of middle schools is associated with decreased obesity.

Of the (many) reasons why I was far from popular from sixth to eighth grade (and perhaps even why I didn't fare much better in high school), was my career as a reporter for our school newspaper. I denounced, in a pointed editorial, the candy and soda tempting us in the hallways between classes. Shortly after, Commack Middle School removed its vending machines. My peers in turn denounced me, also in the hallways between classes. 

The new study ("Take that, CMS!" my mom wrote to me) supports what I first suspected ten years ago: the "not a girl, not yet a woman" status of middle schoolers (boy/man applies as well) makes them an effective target for "nanny state" regulations. While they may not like being told what to eat and drink any more than the rest of us, they perhaps offer the best hope of such policies enacting lasting, positive change.

In the time between grade school (where kids don't have a say in much, anyway) and high school (where access to cars and part-time income guarantee that kids are going to get away with as much as they please), middle school emerges as an important time to be targeting students with healthy eating initiatives. The AP reports:

Children in the study... gained less weight from fifth through eighth grades if they lived in states with strong, consistent laws versus no laws governing snacks available in schools. For example, kids who were 5 feet tall and 100 pounds gained on average 2.2 fewer pounds if they lived in states with strong laws in the three years studied.

Also, children who were overweight or obese in fifth grade were more likely to reach a healthy weight by eighth grade if they lived in states with the strongest laws.

The effects weren't huge, and the study isn't proof that the laws influenced kids' weight. But the results raised optimism among obesity researchers and public health experts who generally applaud strong laws to get junk food out of schools.

Schools shouldn't just be forcing healthier foods on students. The partially-supervised years of middle school are the perfect time to expose them to more options while simultaneously teaching them to make better choices. By the time they reach high school, they can not only start out with the advantage of being at a healthier weight, but they may also be able to approach "competitive foods" -- the technical term for snacks that are a lot more appealing than healthy lunch options, even when the vegetable portion is tomato paste in pizza -- with more discernment.

Then again, the potato chip-loving tweens from my middle school went on to become the very same yogurt and hummus-shunning high schoolers featured last year in the New York Times, when they reported on Commack High School's not-very-successful efforts to introduce an earnestly Whole Foods-esque vending machine to the usual array of junk offerings. Few were enthusiastic about the change. It quoted one student as insisting: "Kids want healthy stuff like baked Doritos, but not an apple that they can get at home free."

As more data comes in about the effects of snack regulations, a larger image of the benefits should start to emerge. But I'm declaring an early victory in my personal vendetta against school vending machines. If anything, the radical stance I took in middle school was perhaps too cautious. 

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Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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