Samples School Limited School Budgets & the Fast Food Invasion in Public Schools

Limited School Budgets & the Fast Food Invasion in Public Schools

941 words 4 page(s)

In the last 10 to 15 years, US public school cafeterias have contracted out their dining services to fast food chain restaurants at the sacrifice of students’ health and eating habits. Fast food consumption is a problem that confronts nearly every child and adolescent in the United States. According to Dr. Laura Bird, the rate of obesity has tripled in school-aged children and adolescents since the 1970s. Furthermore, later on in life, obesity affects mortality rates and has been linked to other serious life threatening diseases. Many experts in the field of childhood health and education are pointing their fingers at the school districts for failing to do their jobs and care for student’s health and well-being. The culprit is the decreased budgets in schools that have left them extremely under-funded.

Bird reports that the declining lunchroom sales of the 1990s made cafeteria lunch programs unprofitable and debt ridden. This led to employee lay-offs and limited budgets to run food programs. Contracting fast food services in public schools was a way to offer food that kids will purchase, and generate revenue. Thus, financial pressure was and continues to be the contributing factor to the presence of junk food at their afternoon cafeteria sessions. Brockett reveals that many fast food franchises “waived the expensive licensing fees” in order to grease the wheels of their contracts with public schools (56).
Many public school cafeteria food programs operate on a separate budget and historically do not break even. Pushed by the need to remain profitable many school lunch program directors and school principals subcontract their food programs to fast food chains.

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A controversy has erupted around fast food in schools because it contradicts the obligation that schools have to provide healthy environments and educate children how to make healthy choices. Food is considered a big part of their education because children spend a large portion of their lives in school, eight or nine hours a day, five days a week. Part of the job of educators and teachers is to and impart healthy habits and teach children how to make healthy choices. Studies show that poor nutrition affects a student’s ability to concentrate and thus learn. Brockett points out: “good nutrition can lead to increased test scores, better attendance, and a more successful learning environment” (59). Sadly, financial reasons have won out over children’s health and needs.

Fast food is controversial because it does not meet the USDA’s minimum nutritional requirements for reduced lunch programs (Brockett 58). In response to this, one school district in Virginia has put carrot sticks, fruit and milk on the lunch trays with fast food. However, the main meal is still junk food. While fast food is mainly contracted at the high school level, it is making its way into middle and elementary schools. Brockett reports that in 30 elementary schools in Fort Collins, Colorado, feature fast food days three times a year. This is dangerous because it introduces fast food consumption and subsequent poor eating habits too early.

On the financial side, the tens of thousands of US fast food franchises create a near omnipresence, as locations are conveniently located almost anywhere you go in the United States. Bird discusses how big fast food companies such as Domino’s, Pizza Hut, and McDonald’s saw school cafeterias as a new market to increase sales. Always searching to expand and find new markets, they set their sights on entering public school cafeterias, which was an easy win. The situation seems to be mutually beneficial when strictly analyzed from a financial standpoint because school districts struggle with being over budget every year. Selling fast food brands balances the books, and creates a profit.

In 1997, Christine Foster reported in Forbes magazine, on the burgeoning situation of fast food in public schools. She used the state of Minnesota as a case study in the tremendous financial benefits of outsourcing food services for school-aged children: “Each year the school board in Billings, Montana, used to have to transfer at least $100,000 from its general fund to the cafeteria account to make up for a shortfall” (190). Yet, after the advent of fast food in the cafeteria, the “Billings Montana school food program reported $116,000 of profit in 1996” (Foster 190). This was 17 years ago, the trend has continued across the nation since then. As of 2002, 20% of school cafeterias offered fast food brands or exclusively contracted their food services to fast food companies (Bird 1). Dr. Bird relays that 14% of school-aged children are overweight and that nearly 30% of adults are obese or overweight. Poor eating habits and particularly fast food consumption are cited as the major contributing factors to this crisis. With the overwhelming number of public school cafeterias serving fast food, these percentages will only continue to grow as well as the associated future health risks.

In conclusion, the core of the debate on whether fast food should be served in schools is health and ethics related. Driven by financial reasons, school food programs have succumbed to fast food industry pressures and opened their doors to them. They inadvertently created a new market for big brands like Taco Bell, Domino’s and Pizza Hut. However, school-aged children are paying the price for this in terms of their health and waistlines. The ethical dilemma facing school officials is the apparent fact that they are placing financial reasons above children’s nutrition.

  • Bird, Laura. “Obese America: Cafeteria Food Fight-Nation’s Kids Get Fatter While School Lunch Programs Battle Fast-food and Soda.” Wall Street Journal,
    B1, (2002 June 14).
  • Brockett, Diane. “School Cafeterias selling brand name junk food: Who deserves a break today?” The Education Digest, 64: 2 (1998): 56-59.
  • Foster, Christine. “Capitalist Cafeterias” [Abstract only]. Forbes 160.9 ((1997): 190-191.