The Challenge of Competitive Foods

Competitive foods are any foods or beverages sold in schools separate from the federally funded school meal programs.  They are called "competitive" foods because they compete with nutritionally complete school breakfasts and lunches for students' attention and meal money. They include a la carte foods sold in the cafeteria line, along with foods and beverages sold through vending machines, school stores, and fundraisers.  Competitive foods are anything that is not part of a complete “reimbursable” school meal. Federally funded school meals are called “reimbursable” because they meet the nutritional guidelines and are eligible for federal reimbursement from the federal school lunch or breakfast programs.

  • Competitive Foods Reduce Nutrition and Promote Obesity: The widespread and ready availability of competitive foods in American schools are well documented. The School Health Policies and Programs Study (SHPPS) found that 43 percent of elementary schools, 74 percent of middle schools, and 98 percent of high schools had vending machines, school snack bars, and other food and beverage sources outside of the school meal programs. The SHPPS found that the most commonly consumed competitive foods and beverages were high in sugar, fat and salt.

    Another study found that the items most widely available in school vending machines were, in descending order, imitation juice drinks, carbonated beverages, fruit juice, candy bars, cookies, candy, cheese puffs and potato chips.

    A review of the effect of competitive foods found that, as students had more access to a la carte and vending machines, the quality of their diet deteriorated, the students ate fewer fruits and vegetables and consumed more sugar and fat. An emerging body of research reveals an association with competitive food availability and increased body mass index.

  • Competitive Foods Stigmatize Low Income Students: Low income students often don't have extra cash in their pockets or on their school meal accounts to purchase competitive foods. Competitive foods can become an unhealthy status symbol that marks those who can't buy them as "poor kids." This segregation may lead to low income students not eating rather than getting the nutritious "hot lunch" available to them at no charge.

  • Competitive Foods Don't Always Improve the Finances of School Meal Programs:

    • School meal programs sometimes argue that they need to sell competitive foods to generate funds to support the meal program. This may have the opposite effect since one study found that increasing competitive food sales reduced the sale of reimbursable meals and had a negative effect on overall food service finances.

    • Research showed conclusively that schools that revamped their competitive food offering to include mostly healthy options combined with a pricing strategy to make the healthy options more affordable increased their profits enormously!

Ways to Challenge Competitive Foods

As a member of the school community, you have the power to change how your school handles the presence of competitive foods on campus. Reducing or removing competitive food choices at meal times can increase reimbursable meal participation. This not only encourages healthy eating behaviors, but also reduces the stigma associated with the federally funded school meals – when all students are participating in the meal program then the program ceases to be considered a “program for the poor.”

  • Limit vending machine operational hours to only after school

  • Reduce or prohibit competitive foods available in vending machines and/or a la carte lines

  • Move vending machines to more isolated locations in schools

  • Replace unhealthy competitive food options with more nutritious alternatives

  • Use pricing strategies to reduce cost of healthier competitive options and increase cost of the unhealthy foods

UPDATED Competitive Food Rules are Here: Smart Snack Rules 

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 increased the nutritional quality of school meals, and included provisions to raise the nutritional standards of a la carte food items, snacks, and beverages sold to students separately from complete (reimbursable) school breakfasts and lunches.  In 2013 the USDA proposed new regulations meant to govern all foods and beverages sold in schools during the school day, and to make their nutritional content consistent with that required of foods served as part of reimbursable school meals.  These regulations will allow schools to be consistent in their promotion of healthy eating and reinforce nutrition education and anti-obesity messages students receive.