Commercial breaks

Food - Bee Wilson counts the cost of vending machines in schools

There is a state secondary school in Texas whose roof is entirely painted over with a giant Dr Pepper logo, advertising the sickly-brown soft drink to passing aeroplanes. School buses in Colorado are garlanded with 7 UP posters. All over the United States, high-school kids sit down to sponsored school dinners of McDonald's and Pizza Hut.

It is worth bearing in mind these American examples when considering the predicament of food in British schools. Is this the way we are going? (More and more British schools now have not dinner ladies, but "food courts" with hot dogs and burgers, at which young "consumers" can graze.) Or is the most commercial end of American school food a kind of cautionary tale, whose example we can yet avoid?

The aspect of commercial feeding in schools that now most outrages British middle-class parents seems to be the presence in secondary schools of vending machines selling snacks and drinks. What do they object to? For one thing, that food is being dispensed by a cold, impersonal mechanism rather than a warm, sentient tuck-shop vendor. But principally, it is the products being sold - the tooth-eroding cans of fizzy drink, the empty sugar of Mars bars, the artery-clogging crisps, all the things that food education classes would tell them not to eat so much of, if only they were ever given any. When Radio 4's Food Programme launched its estimable annual awards two years ago, in the organic presence of Prince Charles at St James's Palace, it awarded a special booby prize, or "mouldy pork pie", to school vending machines. A representative of the industry rather gamely turned up to receive his brickbat, defiant at what he saw as the snobbery of the foodies.

For vending salesmen, there is another side to the story. "Schools can make an awful lot of money from vending machines," I'm told by Martin Button, a representative for the UK vending industry. Depending on the number of pupils, and their appetite for carbonated sugar-water, schools can rake in as much as £20,000 annual profit from vending machines. That buys you a substantial wodge of extra books or Bunsen burners. Last year, one Surrey school even spent the money raised from vending machines on £500 cash bribes to encourage students with the 20 best GCSE results to stay on in the sixth form. Button points out, with some justice, that "regardless of whether it is or isn't bad for them, kids are going to buy chocolate and Coke anyway from the corner shop". School vending machines therefore perform the useful social function of channelling money that would be wasted anyway back into the school, as well as removing at least one motive for playing truant. Besides, as Button comments, no one is forcing the schools to buy the machines. It's entirely up to individual head teachers to decide whether they want these contraptions in their schools.

I can see how this issue might agonise you, if you were a headmaster in a struggling establishment, torn between the widening girth of your pupils and the thought of broadening their minds to the tune of £20,000. Some schools have attempted to square the circle by introducing "healthy" vending machines. At least one has replaced Coke with bottled water. Others are looking at ways of including healthy foods. The trouble is that easily bruised apples seem less suited to sitting inside machines than Twix bars. Besides, the profit margins are usually much lower on these healthier foods, thereby removing the huge incentive. So, the dilemma remains.

In a sense, the question of whether to allow vending machines in schools looks like a classic cost-benefit analysis, with useful results on both sides. In fact, however, it points up the reality that cost-benefit analyses are not always relevant - that right cannot always be reduced to utility. The issue at stake has been blurred by the arguments about cavities versus scholarship programmes. The real question concerns consumer taxation on children to pay for their own education, which can never be made right.

Despite the judgement of the Food Programme, it's not the vending industry that is to blame. As Button says, it is just doing its job. Nor can the individual heads, who act in response to the poverty of their schools, be seen as villains. On questions of taxation, it is the government that must act. But as an eloquent spokesman for the Department for Education and Skills informed me, there is no government policy on this issue, because it wants to "give the heads the power" to do what they want. In an uncanny echo of Martin Button, he tells me that it's a "commercial issue", not a nutritional one, and that children can "spend their pocket money how they like".

The only area regarding vending machines in which concrete government policy does intervene is a health and safety one: "Vending machines have to be bolted upright so that they don't kill children." So that's all right, then.

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