Tempted by too many treats
Children just can't seem to resist the lure of vending machines in schools -- so why put such temptation in their way?
THE vending machine lasted two years at headmaster Tim O'Connor's 450-pupil, co-ed community college. The facility, which served fizzy drinks, crisps and chocolate, was initially introduced because it was seen as a convenient way to serve snacks in a busy school -- after all, no personnel were required to manage it. There was also a small income from renting space to the machine.
"However, we quickly found that the benefits were far outweighed by the problems the machine brought with it," says O'Connor.
To begin with, he recalls, there was a sudden management issue with litter and spills.
"Empty wrappers were lying around and sticky drinks were being spilled on the floors.
"Staff observed that there seemed to be an excessive consumption of fizzy drinks throughout the day -- you'd walk by during the break between classes and see students, who hitherto had no access to this sort of thing, now drinking sugary drinks," O'Connor recalls.
Soon, he says, staff noticed students seemed to be more hyper -- particularly after break-time when they had made "fairly major visits to the machine".
On top of that there were technical problems.
"In the end we felt it was just a nuisance. We introduced a healthy eating policy into the school and had the machine removed."
It was agreed that the existing tuck shop and canteen would suffice, says O'Connor, head of Schull Community College.
The tuck shop and canteen opening hours are strictly restricted to break-times and the products available include water, juices, cereal bars and fruit as well as healthy food like pasta meals.
"We found when you have the tuck shop and canteen open, there is supervision of students by teachers, whereas because a vending machine is more likely to be tucked away in a hall or corner somewhere, it cannot be properly and fully supervised in the same way." It has been 10 years since they got rid of that machine and they haven't looked back, he says.
Vending machine fizzy drinks and sweet snacks should be a complete no-no for schools, says dietician Paula Mee. There's one in the school her 14-year-old son attends and she's not a fan, she adds.
"I know I won't be popular with my son and his friends for saying so, but I think children are exposed to enough of these foods at weekends and holidays without being tempted by them when they walk down a school corridor."
Pointing out that many schools are now incorporating healthy eating policies as part of the classroom curriculum, she observes that the presence of vending machines -- bursting with sweet treats and sugary drinks -- utterly defeat the purpose of such well-meaning exercises.
"A school has an educational role. If they teach about healthy eating they should not provide vending machines in the corridor."
If a school feels the need to have a vending machine on-site, Mee suggests stocking it with bottles of water and healthier granola or oat-based snack bars, "so that at least there is something in there with a bit of nutrition like dried nuts, seeds, raisins and so on".
"There should be healthy options available. They have access outside the school to these things and I don't see why they should be getting them inside school. It's all about putting temptation in their way.
"I know I'd be tempted if I was there. If I was a teenager and had money, I'd be stopping off and getting a chocolate bar without necessarily needing it. It's an unnecessary temptation."
At Loreto College in Foxrock, south Dublin, school principal Nuala Mannion has reached an acceptable compromise.
The school authorities have allowed vending machines on campus, but they ensure the facility is limited and sells only the healthier food options.
The machine sells water and juice, along with some fairtrade products.
"We also have a canteen, which offers home-made food such as soups, salads, brown bread and smoothies.
"It works well -- not every child brings a lunch every day and sometimes they like to buy their lunch.
"We have a very good canteen facility and we try to keep the food as natural as possible. We run a health-wise week in the school in February. It was a conscious decision to keep vending machine facilities as limited as possible.
"Our whole policy is to promote healthy eating, provide that for the students in our canteen, and to encourage them to bring a healthy lunch in to school."
Co Tipperary-based headmistress Sr Bridie Mullins got rid of her school's sweet treat vending machine four years ago and replaced it with a facility selling water and fruit drinks.
As principal of the 520-student Loreto Secondary School in Clonmel, she says the action was taken to encourage healthy eating.
"Essentially we were listening to what was better for the youngsters."
Several other schools, contacted as part of the research for this feature and asked whether they provided vending machines, and what their policy was, declined to comment even though anecdotally, it seems, many schools still have them.
The bottom line is that concepts about nutrition being taught in the classroom are undermined by the presence of sweetly stocked vending machines in school corridors.