Groups Combat Childhood Obesity through School Vending Machines

Published December 1, 2007

Kindergartners through high school seniors will continue to see more low-calorie vending-machine drinks after a year-old agreement between the American Beverage Association (ABA) and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation (AHG) was left largely unchanged after re-examination in August.

In spring 2006 the groups reached a voluntary agreement to begin phasing sugary drinks out of school vending machines after the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group based in Washington, DC, threatened a lawsuit.

According to the Web site run jointly by ABA and AHG,, the guidelines recommend schools offer healthier beverage options and teach children to balance calories consumed with calories burned through exercise.

Lower Calories

The specific drink offerings vary between elementary, middle, and high schools, but all focus on providing lower-calorie, more nutritious, smaller-portion beverages and removing full-calorie soft drinks.

This year, AHG, which includes the William J. Clinton Foundation and American Heart Association, together with ABA, added a technical amendment clarifying sports drinks such as Gatorade and enhanced waters should be allowed in school vending machines because there’s no nutritional difference between the two. Both have 75 calories per 12 ounce bottle, according to the Web site.

That was the only change from the original agreement.

Progressive Implementation

The agreement upheld the original guideline that no more than 50 percent of the drinks can be juice or mid-calorie drinks.

ABA spokesperson Tracey Halliday said both groups are striving to fully implement the guidelines by the 2009-10 school year.

So far, Halliday said, it’s going well, with 35 percent of schools nationwide already in compliance.

Part of the success has come from outreach efforts, Halliday said. Schools voluntarily comply with the guidelines, and ABA and AHG work to inform students and engage parents through outreach, ad campaigns, and word of mouth.

Calorie Counts

Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, president of the American Council on Science and Health in New York City, said although she supports the groups’ efforts to combat childhood obesity by reducing the caloric content of school vending-machine offerings, it won’t necessarily make a significant difference in children’s health by itself.

“Every little bit helps,” Whelan said, but “what kids are eating and drinking outside the school is what’s important.”

A better long-term strategy, Whelan said, would be for schools to teach students the importance of exercise, in addition to providing low-calorie foods in vending machines and cafeteria offerings.

Healthy Lifestyle

AGA and AHG encourage schools to focus on both calories consumed and calories burned, helping students understand the importance of physical activity, Halliday said.

“These guidelines are part of a broader effort to teach children a healthy lifestyle,” Halliday explained.

Jillian Melchior ([email protected]) writes from Michigan.