Trendy vending

Eating and learning are linked, so Washoe is giving students better brain food

When students arrive in Washoe middle and high schools this year, they will find one change—the stuff in the school vending machines will be more nutritional.

“Soft drinks are verboten,” says school district official Steve Mulvenon. “The board adopted that policy in April, effective July 1. Now, there’s more to it than that. It’s a whole wellness and nutrition policy for students, but the immediate change that kids are going to see is not the absence of vending machines but a whole different selection of what’s available in them.”

There is a substantial science indicating that poor nutrition can impair neural development, leading to lower intelligence quotients, so there is a link between what students eat and how well they learn.

The approved Washoe list (see box) includes water, milk (flavored and sugared milk is permitted), fruit and vegetable juice (nothing is specified about whether it can be made from concentrate), “sports” drinks, “drinkable dairy” products (smoothies and yogurt, for instance), miscellaneous chips, crackers and nuts, and various breakfast items like Pop Tarts and cereal bars. (Trix cereal bars are on the approved list, but General Mills says it has discontinued them.)

An early planned list of prohibitions included regular and diet soft drinks, any carbonated drinks, coffee drinks, energy drinks, “fruity” drinks (as opposed to fruit drinks), regular chips, candy, gum, large cookies and muffins, “enhanced” waters or “designer” drinks—with additives, herbal, or with non-vitamin substances. However, some such products did make it onto the approved list, such as Snapple. “Sales of foods and beverages high in fat, salt, caffeine and large portion sizes are no longer allowed in vending machines,” was another early guideline. It is now policy, though it is expressed at much greater word length. The guidelines include percent or gram limits on fats, sugar, salt and calories. Caffeine products are simply banned. Portion sizes are regulated. And advertising or promotions for products that can’t be sold on the school grounds are likewise prohibited.

While the list allows many types of good food, there’s no assurance that any particular types will be in machines. Mulvenon says he doesn’t know if fresh fruit will be vended, for instance. Some items on the list are more healthful than others, and the danger is that the low-end items nutritionally will be stocked heavily because they’ll sell better.

While the list of approved foods for school vending machines is a big improvement over what could be sold before, it is not a dream list. For instance, while milk can be sold in vending machines, so can flavored and sugared milk like Nestle’s Nesquik and Hershey’s chocolate milk. Granola bars, which have drawn criticism from nutritionists for edging closer to becoming candy bars, are on the approved list. The milk is low- or non-fat, and the list specifies brands of granola bars that are better than most.

And sports drinks are approved, which the Center for Science in the Public Interest considers one of the principal weaknesses of the Washoe list. “Sports drinks don’t have nutritional value,” says Center nutrition specialist Joy Johanson. “You know, it’s basically sugar water with some salts in it. The American College of Sports Medicine’s position on sports drinks is that they’re appropriate for athletes who’ve been doing vigorous cardiovascular exercise for at least an hour. Most school students don’t get that kind of a workout during the school day.”

She praises the inclusion of low- and non-fat milk on the list. “It’s actually been very difficult in other parts of the country to limit the milk in schools to low-fat milk and so we think that’s very laudable that they were able to get that down to 1 percent or fat free.”

The Washoe list became the state list, which is why the Center recently listed Nevada second in the nation for nutrition in school vending machines, a rare instance of the state being on the good end of a national ranking.

“Normally, I don’t make a big deal about state rankings,” Mulvenon said. “But … before the state did anything, a local group in Washoe County came to our school board saying, ‘We think you guys need a different policy on what you’re selling in vending machines and what you’re selling to kids on campus.’ This doesn’t include the school lunch program. We went to work on it. We were well along that path of developing that policy when the feds told the state, ‘You all gotta start coming up with some standards.’ The state came to us and in essence adopted what we’d already done in Washoe County. We think we got the [state] ranking because the work we did locally drove the state standards.”