Tool kit gives advice for replacing soda & junk food with healthier drinks & snacks

Parents, teachers, and school administrators should work to improve the nutritional quality of the meals, snacks, and drinks available to students, according to the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). The nutrition-advocacy group today released its School Foods Tool Kit—a comprehensive manual that provides practical advice for improving school foods. Replacing soda and junk foods with healthful drinks and snacks, says the group, can help combat the skyrocketing rates of obesity in children and teens.

CSPI also announced its list of Better Snacks & Worst Snacks for school vending machines. CSPI’s worst snacks are Chips Ahoy!, Oreo, and other fatty cookies; chocolate whole or two percent milk; Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and other sodas; Frutopia, FruitWorks, and other “fruit” drinks; Keebler Club & Cheddar Sandwich Crackers; Kit Kat Big Kat, Snickers, and other candy bars; Hostess HOHOs; and Starburst Fruit Chews and other sugary candies. CSPI’s better snacks are applesauce cups (unsweetened); bottled water; Nature Valley Crunchy Granola Bars Oats ‘n Honey; orange juice (100 percent); Chex Mix Traditional; Dole or Del Monte Fruit Cups; low-fat or fat-free milk; and raisins and other unsweetened dried fruit.

CSPI’s School Foods Tool Kit recommends that communities set nutritional standards for snacks sold outside the official school meal program. Such standards might ban soda, limit portion sizes, and require snacks to have 10 percent or less of calories from saturated plus trans fat, and have 35 percent or less of its weight from added sugars.

“It’s important for parents to feed kids well at home, but parents also need to worry about the six hours a day their kids are in school,” said CSPI nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan. “Regrettably, many of our schools are trying to bridge budget gaps at the expense of our children’s health. If parents organize, apply pressure, and work with school-food decision makers, they will be able to worry less about what their kids are eating at school.”

Despite rising public concern over obesity and poor nutrition, school officials often won’t curb soda and junk food sales in schools for fear of losing desperately needed revenue. But CSPI’s School Foods Tool Kit provides many examples of how some schools have raised as much revenue—and sometimes more—by selling more healthful options.

Unlike the foods in vending machines, school lunches have actually been improving over the last ten years, as their fat, cholesterol, and sodium have decreased, while fruits and vegetables have become more plentiful. CSPI says that one easy way for schools to improve meals further is by having cafeterias switch from whole or two percent milk to one percent or fat-free milk.

“Kids who buy a school lunch are at least getting a good balance of nutrients, whereas kids spending their lunch money in the vending machine might get Doritos and a Coke,” Wootan said.

Some of the CSPI’s recommendations for parents in the School Foods Tool Kit include:

  • Visit the school at lunch time. See the cafeteria and the foods offered as part of the school lunch program—but also find out what’s available in vending machines.
  • If you don’t like what you see, ask the principal or the school food service director about healthier options. Ask members of the PTA, community health councils, the media, and others groups to do the same.
  • Urge governors, state legislators, city councilors, and school board officials to work to enact legislation to improve the nutritional quality of drinks and snacks sold in vending machines.

Rates of obesity have doubled in children and tripled in adolescents over the last two decades. That is already fueling a rise in type 2 diabetes, and 60 percent of overweight five- to 10-year-olds already have high cholesterol or some other risk factor for heart disease.

Although some food industry groups try to put most of the blame for childhood obesity on physical inactivity as opposed to poor nutrition, CSPI says that it would take 75 minutes of biking for a young person to burn off the calories in a 20-ounce bottle of soda.

Parents or school administrators can purchase the School Foods Tool Kit by sending a $10 check made payable to CSPI to School Foods Tool Kit, CSPI, 1220 L St., NW #300, Washington, DC 20005. A free version is available at