Prof Learns Why Students Choose Junk Food

May 14, 2008 - News Release

It will come as no surprise that a new study has found most high school students are eating junk food for lunch at school.

But the research by a University of Guelph sociologist also looked at factors influencing students to make unhealthy choices and found several culprits beyond the schools themselves.

"Unlike in elementary school, where parents can send their child with a lunch, high school students are getting a large proportion of their nutritional intake for the day from what they buy at school," said Prof. Tony Winson.

"In a typical high school with more than 1,000 students, the cafeteria would sell only three to five pieces of fruit in total per day, which is extraordinarily low, and virtually no one is buying plain milk.”

The study, which was published in this month's online version of Agriculture, Food, and Human Values, involved 10 Ontario public high schools in a school district northwest of the Greater Toronto Area.

Winson said he set out to determine what is in high school food environments and why, and also what students are buying to eat between classes.

“We need to know what the determinants are that are creating this type of food environment in our high schools in order to fix it."

He found students were making the best nutritional choices when buying their main meals at lunch, but even then, 35 per cent of the choices were food of only moderate or minimal nutritional value. On the other hand, upwards of 70 per cent of side dishes and 80 per cent of dessert purchases were junk food-type items.

Winson said aggressive mass advertising targeting children and teenagers is one of the reasons kids tend to be drawn towards unhealthy foods. But that doesn't entirely explain why high school cafeterias are purchasing and supplying fast foods and junk food. He discovered one of the reasons is that school cafeterias are often competing against nearby fast-food outlets.

"We found most schools were within walking distance of several fast-food outlets, and the people in charge of food and beverage purchasing reported they had to take into account the competition next door."

To ensure that students spent their lunch money at the school rather than neighbourhood restaurants, cafeterias felt pressure to feature less nutritious items such as hamburgers, pizza, french fries and other finger foods, as well as junk foods in tuck shops and vending machines, and to sell them at a competitive price, he said.

"Studies in the United States have shown that skewing the prices of these unhealthy foods and beverages is likely to influence what students purchase," he added.

Cafeteria staffing shortages are another factor contributing to the large percentage of low-nutrition foods offered in high school cafeterias, Winson found. Cafeterias are turning to frozen foods and ready-made mixes because they take less preparation time than healthier foods made from scratch, he said.

"But these easy-to-make foods are often laced with trans fats and are of minimal nutritional value."

Although several provinces have taken steps to reduce the number of unhealthy foods in high schools, Ontario is lagging behind, focusing only on restricting junk food in elementary school and eliminating trans fats, he said.

"It's a start but not nearly enough. The province needs to take a much stronger stand on this issue, especially given the health trends of today's youth. A publicly funded institution is not the place to be undermining the health of our young people."

Tony Winson
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
519-824-4120, Ext. 52193

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt, 519-824-4120, Ext. 53338, or, or Deirdre Healey, Ext. 56982 or

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