Educate to Avoid Candy Bans' Unintended Consequences
> 4/1/2008 1:02:29 PM

Some well-intentioned rules have been leading to some unintended consequences in schools around the country. Toward the end of promoting healthier eating, many districts have crafted policies that forbid the sale or purchase of candy on school property. It's not hard to imagine why these rules seem like a sensible answer: schools are regularly implicated in contributing to children's growing waistlines. Some schools have made attempts to provide more nutritious options in cafeterias, while others have taken all soda machines off of school premises. As some local news sources have begun reporting, these new candy-banning policies are giving way to difficult situations for educators and administrators.

Children, adolescents, and even high school students like eating candy. It's sweet and it tastes good. Many students are not sleeping enough, and the cheap calories and fast energy that come with sugar-loaded food-stuffs could even be what keeps them functioning throughout the day. For all these reasons, we should not be surprised that schools' candy-bans have led to a growing underground candy economy in some areas. Much in the same way that the 18th Amendment created a thriving black market economy for alcohol in the 1920s, these new rules have shifted the costs of candy but have done little to actually take it out of the schools. Worse though, these rules are forcing teachers and school administrators to act like modern day Eliot Nesses instead of allowing them to better educate children.

As the US learned during its experiment with prohibition, outright bans on products often times have unintended, negative consequences. Making candy unwelcome on school property does nothing to actually reduce children's candy intake as it doesn't address the actual demand for candy. Any student who wants candy will now turn to the black market, or will wait till they get home, or will leave school property, or will just smuggle candy into class on his own. None of these are the desired outcome, but they are the likely outcomes, even as schools go so far as to suspend candy buyers and sellers.

Instead of wasting energy on policing, schools need to focus more of their attention on addressing the issues that leads to unhealthy eating. Health and nutrition classes need to stress the importance of food choice and the biological mechanisms that benefit and lose out when individuals make certain choices. Cafeterias need to offer high-quality, tasty options to keep students' energy levels high. For their part, teachers and administrators, with the help and support of parents, need to let students know that rules against candy aren't about creating an adversarial relationship, but about encouraging certain behaviors and discouraging others.

These efforts are not guaranteed to halt all poor food choices by students, but by focusing on educating instead of punishing, we might hope to improve the situation without creating unnecessary grief. A great deal of research into the consumption of sugar by children and adolescents shows that it is in fact hardwired, and researchers are now looking at the issue of why. But until we have a better understanding of the relationship between nutrition and cognitive development, we'll have to continue striving to teach healthy behaviors and providing better alternatives to sugary treats.

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