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June 10, 2009

 

DiNapoli: Junk Food Sold in NYC Schools Weakens
Efforts to Promote Healthy Eating

Renewed Call to Combat Childhood Obesity

An audit released today by Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli found that junk food is routinely sold in New York City schools, undermining efforts of the federal and state governments and the City Department of Education (DOE) to promote healthy eating habits among the students. Auditors found that school stores and vending machines at 20 of 30 City schools visited sold candy, soda and other unhealthy snacks to students during lunch periods in direct violation of the Chancellor’s policies and in direct competition with the healthy lunches offered by the DOE.

“More than a million young New Yorkers are obese,” DiNapoli said. “Childhood obesity costs the State $242 million in public and private medical expenses each year. And those costs grow exponentially to nearly $6.1 billion for obese adults.”

“School vending machines loaded with junk food, candy and soda are not the best tools in the fight against childhood obesity. The city and state both have set requirements for physical education and nutrition programs, but if the guidelines aren’t followed, they can’t be very effective. Schools should be ensuring good nutritional practices now so we can reduce health care costs in the future. Let’s lose the chips and soda in our schools.”

At 14 of the 15 high schools visited, DiNapoli’s auditors found candy, soda and other unhealthy snacks are sold to students throughout the school day, in direct violation of the Chancellor’s policies. The DOE’s Office of School Food (SchoolFood) provides healthy meal choices for all students, and schools are supposed to provide only foods and beverages approved by SchoolFood. The Chancellor has also set regulations detailing what schools are allowed to sell through vending machines and school stores. School principals were generally aware of the problem but were either unwilling or felt unable to shut down the inappropriate sales. This audit follows DiNapoli’s October 2008 report on the taxpayer cost of New York’s childhood obesity crisis and a December 2008 DiNapoli audit highlighting the lack of standardized physical education classes in New York schools.

Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum said, “Childhood obesity continues to be a problem in our city. I am encouraged that the DOE has agreed to take action to curb the sale of junk food in school vending machines, and I look forward to seeing the results of those efforts. As I recommended in a 2008 report, the DOE must make sure that all New York City public schools provide the amount of P.E. required by state regulations. By enforcing regular physical activity and nutritious choices in our public schools, we can help reduce childhood obesity and improve the overall quality of our children’s health. I want to thank Comptroller DiNapoli for addressing this important issue.”

In response to the audit DOE has:

  • Removed all vending machines from elementary schools;
  • Issued a Request for Proposal for vending machines that sell only nutritious snacks;
  • Implemented a process to install timers to regulate when vending machines operate;
  • Prohibited the sale of unhealthy items from vending machines and school stores during the school day starting in September 2009;
  • Established procedures for monitoring and reporting school compliance; and
  • Begun to issue adverse performance ratings for principals who fail to correct deficiencies.

Auditors visited a total of 30 schools throughout all five boroughs, including 15 high schools, 10 middle schools and 5 elementary schools. Problems were also found with the sale of junk foods were also evident in the middle schools and elementary schools.
“It’s deeply troubling that New York State school districts continue to finance schools and programs at the expense of our children’s health,” said Nancy Huehnergarth, director, New York State Healthy Eating and Physical Activity Alliance. “Selling junk food to kids on school grounds, when the state’s childhood obesity rate is over 25 percent, is negligent at best. We applaud the NYC DOE for accepting the Comptroller’s findings and taking immediate action to improve the health of every student. School districts around the state should follow their lead and state legislators, who have been unable to pass statewide school nutrition standards, should take notice.”

“Our vision is a world free of cancer, and helping children make healthy eating choices is a big part of realizing that dream,” said Dave Momrow, Senior Vice President of Cancer Control, American Cancer Society of NY & NJ. “In New York State, 11,000 cancer deaths a year are related to obesity and lack of physical activity. Comptroller DiNapoli and the New York City school system are joining the fight by ensuring that only healthy food selections are available to students during the school day. The Comptroller's audits , in combination with his special report on the significant health related cost impact of this issue, provide critical direction on why and how we must focus greater attention on where young people spend a significant part of their day, our schools. Now it's time for lawmakers in Albany to address the issue of nutrition in schools so children statewide have futures filled with promise, not pain.”

Among the other problems found by the auditors were:

  • 15 of the 30 schools’ food and beverage vending machines were open for students during lunch times and many contained junk food items;
  • Ten school stores sold food during lunch times;
  • Auditors observed students bypassing lunch lines and heading straight to vending machines and school stores for their lunch items; and
  • Some school stores also sold candy in bulk for student activity fundraising. One school official stated 2007 school store candy sales generated between $40,000 to $70,000 profits for the school.

SchoolFood officials were aware that unhealthy food was being sold during lunch time, but did not pursue corrective action. At 10 of 30 visited, principals or assistant principals stated that they were not aware of the federal and city Wellness Policy. DOE officials stated all principals have been informed of the policies.

The audit recommends that DOE take action to immediately stop the sale of competitive foods in school stores and vending machines prior to the end of the last school lunch period. The audit also recommends that DOE provide better oversight regarding the types of food sold at school stores and in vending machines. The audit also made eight other recommendations aimed at improving DOE oversight and school compliance with required policies. DOE officials agreed with the recommendations and provided details regarding how they will implement them.

Click here for a full version of the audit.

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