Study: Unhealthy snacks common in Minn. high schools

School vending machine
A high school student buys snacks from a vending machines in a file photo. Unhealthy snack foods are competing with fruits and vegetables in Minnesota high schools, a new study reports.
AP Photo/M. Spencer Green

A new study shows many Minnesota high schools offer unhealthy snacks in vending machines or snack bars.

The results come from a nationwide analysis by The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Minnesota ranked among the best in the nation in the percentage of schools offering healthy snacks, like fruit. But it was one of the worst on a measure of schools offering cookies, pastries or crackers.

Erik Olson, directer of food programs at The Pew Charitable Trusts, said those snacks compete with healthier options.

"We're making so much of an effort to try to improve school meals, but if kids can just go down the hall and turn the corner, and buy in a vending machine or a school store, something that's a lot less healthy, you're really not going to be addressing the problem," Olson said.

Healthy snacks help fight obesity, Olson said.

"What the research is showing is that you really only need to cut about 110 to 165 calories per day out of a kid's diet in order to help reverse this whole skyrocketing obesity problem," Olson said. "That's really the difference between, say, eating an apple versus eating a bag of chips for a snack."

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Schools may worry about losing revenue from high-calorie snacks, but Olson said many districts that implement healthier snacks actually gain revenue, as students bypass the snacks in favor of school lunch.

St. Paul Public Schools, the state's second largest district, cut soda and high-calorie snacks from its vending machines several years ago.

"Access to unhealthy snacks and added calories is just not the thing we need, given the state of students' health these days," said Nutrition Services Director Jean Ronnei.

The district sells only water in vending machines during the day, said Ronnei. After school is out, vending machines offer snacks, but those snacks are healthier than in the past - smaller portions, more limited in fat, sugar and sodium. The changes did reduce revenue from vending machines, Ronnei said, but it was the "right thing to do."

"If those snacks are sold during the cafeteria time -- lunchtime or breakfast time -- clearly students can make choices then between healthy meals and junk food," Ronnei said. "We aren't seeing that in St. Paul, but clearly that would be a detriment to the kids' health."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is preparing to release new standards for snacks in schools.

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