2012 A Vending Odyssey

Posted on January 20, 2012

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Vending machines are bad, right? Especially in schools. They make kids eat stuff they shouldn’t and turn them into fat lazy teens.  Bad, bad vending machines!

A Penn State study followed 19,000 middle school students in 1,000 schools from 5th to 8th grade. Researchers wanted to see if the presence of vending machines in their schools made them fatter. Here’s an article about the study: http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/337789/title/Junk_food_in_schools_gets_weighty_reprieve

To sum it up, kids who attended schools with vending machines had body mass indexes (BMIs) similar to kids who did not. The study concluded that access to vending machines at school had little effect on student weight. The study goes on to speculate that perhaps it was the food they were eating at home that was making some of them fat. (Worth noting, there is zero discussion or study on the impact of highly processed school lunches on kids’ weight and health.)

Vending machines have been redeemed! Bring on the vending machines!

For the record, I don’t like vending machines at school. It’s not because I think they make kids fat. It’s because they are completely unnecessary. The food industry has duped us into believing that every event, trip or miniscule happening requires a snack and a celebration.  Seriously? Like I will die if I don’t eat something in between lunch and dinner?!

Generations of people have lived through worse conditions without the need to snack in between meals. In fact, the idea of snacking is relatively new – and uniquely American.

When my kids were little and involved in various sports, snacks became the staple at every practice and game. Usually it was juice boxes and fruit snacks (neither of which contained anything near real fruit). Blech. I became frustrated with what seemed like an eternal snack-a-thon for two reasons. First, it was an unnecessary expense and second, it was an unneccesary food. My kids appeared to love sports – but – only because it involved a snack. What will it be this week? Cookies? Fruit Roll-Ups? Chips? I soon learned that my kids didn’t love sports, they loved dessert. And who doesn’t love dessert?

I was conditioning them to love dessert through sports – and to expect food at all major and minor life events (up to and including 10 minute car rides).

Unfortunately, I was too timid (and frazzled) to take a stand, so I bought into the snack-is-required mindset. I dutifully yet begrudgingly toted pre-packaged snacks when it was my week to do so. I also delivered cupcakes to my kids’ classrooms on their birthdays and stocked my house with cheap fake fruit snacks and juice boxes for their endless line of friend-fests. I didn’t like doing it but I did it anyway. In my parental fog, I was very much into the pick-your-battles stage and figured it would even out some day.

So, I am finally taking a tiny stand now. My kids are teens and their schools have vending machines. While I don’t like the idea of the vending machines taking up school space, I don’t see any value in staging a campaign to have them removed. After all, they exist in real life and have a right to exist. (Plus in this latest study they have been redeemed! Bring on the vending machines!) Instead, I remind my kids about the difference between real food and fake food and how the food industry is interested in profits, not nutrition. I explain it’s up to us to figure out the true value of certain food items. Nobody is going to do that work for us. Sometimes we eyeball ingredient lists together. I usually ask a couple of times each week, “Are you having real food or fake food?” I am sure they translate most of my diatribes to, “Blah, blah, blah” but if you speak the truth often enough it has the ability to become somebody else’s truth, right? (I want to be louder than the food industry.)

Also, if they want snacks from their school’s vending machine (or pretty much any vending machine), they have to use their own money. That happens to be the biggest snack-at-school deterrent. Heck, the kids could care less about nutrition or the company’s bottom line. They like what they like and make decisions based on their own bottom line. Like most of us.

That is not to say my home does not contain its own assortment of Franken foods. It does. But little by little I have been buying less of it. And little by little my kids are becoming more interested in what they eat. As one of my brilliant friends, Fiona Fierce, said recently, “It’s crazy simple.” They may choose to wolf down every possible Franken-food once they launch into their own adult lives but at least they will carry the dissonance of awareness.

Dissonance. Crazy simple.

I cannot fix our nation’s obesity problem. (I am having a hard enough time dealing with my own final 20 lbs.) I wish the answer was as easy as eating less cheese and eliminating vending machines from schools. While those seem like crazy simple answers, they are mostly just crazy. The real answer lies in our willingness to turn our collective dissonance into action over time. One by one. Personal responsibility. The same day I read about the vending machine study, another study showed that obesity rates are beginning to level off.  Maybe the tables are already starting to turn.

If so, perhaps there soon will be a lot more people saying , “I’m sorry Franken-food. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

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