How Candy as a Reward Degrades Healthy Nutrition in Schools

How using candy as rewards degrades nutrition in schools

When we think of nutrition in schools, we think of school lunches. It’s pretty well-established that when kids eat junk, lethargy and apathy can set in – not a great environment for learning. And of course, we want to teach our kids healthy eating habits. Feeding kids cheeseburgers and pizza every day clearly isn’t the best way.

So while there’s been resistance to making school lunches healthier, nutrition in schools has come a long way. This is due to proactive parents and educators who chose to fight the standard reasons for serving kids junk and make nutrition in schools a priority.

But when it comes to using candy, treats, and other junk as rewards, motivators, or “teaching tools” in schools, our culture still says it’s just fine.

Why do we support junk food as snacks, rewards, and even curriculum tools when unhealthy lunches are losing acceptance? There are a lot of reasons:

  • Kids are “entitled” to sweets; it’s a part of childhood and make kids happy.
  • Treats “motivate” kids.
  • Food restriction, in whatever form, infringes on my rights, even if it means my child will receive sugary treats at school.
  • Not everyone is dialed in to healthy nutrition. It’s not on our radar.
  • Treats are cheaper and easier than other types of rewards.
  • It’s ingrained in school culture. It’s too hard to change.

But when the same reasons are applied to unhealthy school lunches, it looks like this:

  • Kids are “entitled” to unhealthy lunches; it’s a part of childhood. Junk make kids happy.
  • Unhealthy lunches “motivate” kids.
  • Food restriction, in whatever form, infringes on my rights, even if it means my child will be given unhealthy lunches at school.
  • Not everyone is dialed in to healthy nutrition. It’s not on our radar.
  • Unhealthy lunches are cheaper and easier than other types of foods.
  • Treats are ingrained in the school culture. It’s too hard to change.

Sounds a bit far-fetched, right?

Candy Somehow Exempt from Nutrition in Schools

Rewarding and teaching kids with sugar isn’t even considered part of nutrition in schools; it holds a a smiled-upon, exempt status. But as you can see, using our schools as a candy store is a pretty bad idea:

  • Giving out food as a reward teaches children to eat when they are not hungry and can encourage life-long associations between food and behavior.
  • It undermines nutrition education being taught in school.
  • Rewards and bribes focused around food ultimately do not help children develop healthy attitudes towards food.
  • When children are rewarded with food, they unfortunately associate “junk” food with being good or feeling happy.
  • Associating food with good or bad behavior may have long-lasting effects on students’ food preferences and eating style.
  • Excessive consumption of “junk” food and lack of proper nutrition are contributing factors in cavities, obesity, and diabetes.

Despite some resistance to change at my child’s school, we’ve made headway. Our principals are, for the most part, open-minded and supportive (unlike at other schools where parents may be told they just accept it or homeschool). It’s early in the process and compromises have been made. Awareness is the just first step.

As a result of bringing this to the school’s attention and working with the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) this past year:

  • We created a policy for teachers to use a guide for classroom nutrition. While this policy does not prohibit teachers from using food or candy in the classroom, it raises awareness about the impact of doing so. It also requires teachers to survey parents about whether or not they permit their child to receive food in the classroom. This survey needs work, however; it forces parents to make an all-or-nothing choice about their child receiving ANY food (including birthdays and parties) instead of singling out sweets.
  • Some teachers have stopped using candy in their classroom. 
  • Teachers stopped using candy in math lessons.
  • We are now working on finalizing a policy for encouraging healthy food at parties and birthday celebrations.

Eliminating or even just reducing sugar in schools is a hot-button issue; progress is slow. But this isn’t about blaming each other, the schools, the teachers, or the parents. It isn’t even a “political” issue, which only serves to cloud the problem of obesity in this country. It’s about schools sending a consistent and constructive message about how to eat healthy and celebrate in a fun yet healthier way.

I’ve talked here about how I’m working with my child’s school to raise awareness (contact me if you’d like to see our policy). If you’re concerned about nutrition in schools I encourage you to get involved in the school’s PTA. You should also talk to your child’s teacher, and if you still don’t feel heard, speak to the principal.

Change can happen, but it has to be parents who move it forward. Being passionate about a hot-button issue may not make you the most-popular member of PTA, but it’s truly gratifying to see people working as a team in the best interest of our kids.

We owe it to our kids to do this.

Further reading

28 thoughts on “How Candy as a Reward Degrades Healthy Nutrition in Schools

  1. I love this! Great constructive ways to deal with this issue. Too often food=love or rewards in our culture, finding other ways to show these is great! Change often starts with the young if we will just give guidance and support.


  2. While I do not have kids, I know that unhealthy lunches is a hot topic right now and we as a country our on the move to make school lunches healthier. I was fascinated with this girl from Scotland who took pictures of her school lunches and created a blog about it. This forced the school (well after she was told to take down her blog and then said it was okay when the huge outpour of support for her occurred) to make healthier lunches. She turned in to raising money for school cafeterias in Malawi. She was only 9 years old. I only wish I had an ounce of her ambition at that age.

    I remembered our lunches and they were not healthy now that I think about those days (so long ago). However, we never got candy as a reward. I really did try to think about it and I honestly can’t remember a time where we got candy. We got stars and a gold star meant you were extra special in whatever you did.

    Back to the point, I’m glad you are doing something to make that change. I definitely think the food should be changed.


    • The article is fantastic, thanks for sharing it. Wouldn’t that be interesting here?? Wow, nine, that’s my daughter’s age. Such a good example! I also do not remember ever receiving candy at school for any reason. We got candy on holidays only, my parents didn’t keep it in the house. Gold stars are the way to go. Thanks for your support!


  3. i agree! i recall when this issue came up originally. i learned then that our son’s school does something similar, and was not happy about it. I think that they’ve moved more toward little trinket prizes instead, but now that he’s in a new grade, i’ll have to check that out!
    thanks, Suzanne, for helping to make our schools a better place for our kids.
    rock on.


  4. Just yesterday I volunteered in my twin daughters’ school (new Kindergartners). As a former teacher I remembered the horrid school lunches, but six years later with my own kids in that lunch room, I was even more appalled. Flat processed meat aka hamburger, on a white roll. Egg and cheese on a greasy biscuit. A sad looking peach. And a sign that said, “Ice Cream can be eaten as a snack.” I felt terrible for the children whose parents didn’t pack their lunches (for whatever reason). Kids need to have healthy bodies and minds to learn. I’m so glad you write this post.. I’m going to retweet it!


    • Ugh! That all sounds horrendous. Our menu doesn’t *sound* bad but probably isn’t the greatest either. Feeding our children outright junk at school is a huge problem and someday we’ll look back in disgust.


  5. Great post! We should all be trying to raise awareness about good nutrition in our schools. The lunches and snacks at my daughters school are not very healthy and I would love to see that changed.


  6. Thank you so much for this post. It’s a great way to bring awareness to all stakeholders concerned with children’s proper diet. You’re absolutely right, adults should initiate the change of belief that candies are okay as rewards. I think it’s just a matter of conditioning the mind. Just like everything else in life, our choice of food usually depends on habit or what we’re used to. I believe that children, especially in their formative years, should be introduced only to healthy foods until it becomes part of their habit.


  7. Hi Suzanne. I’m not a parent, but I care very much about what kids are eating at school because of how it impacts their health, mental acuity, development and their habits later in life. Liked how you showcased the hypocrisy of being concerned about school lunches and not candy…it just doesn’t make sense! The actions you are taking at your daughter’s school will benefit all of her classmates.


  8. Great post, I love how constructive you are. As a parent I am continually frustrated by how often my children are offered candy and other junk food. It’s everywhere they go, school should be a safe place. They restrict all kinds of healthy foods like nuts, seeds, eggs, fruit, fish, etc. every time you turn around there’ more whole foods you can’t send to school, but the teachers feel entitled to dole out candy without even consulting parents. It’s unbelievably frustrating. I do however think that most teachers are well intentioned, and perhaps they just need some different strategies for rewarding and encouraging kids. Food is usually the “easy way” but there are techniques they can use. i love that you brought the issue to your parent council to help come up with some guidelines.


  9. You’re doing an excellent service by bringing this issue to light. I don’t have kids, but even I have noticed the proliferation of candy sales and junk-food machines in schools.

    This unfortunate idea that kids “deserve” sweets is great preparation for a lifetime of obesity and bad health.


  10. I could still remember when I was still a grade school student. My teacher usually rewarded me with a lot of candies when I was good in her class. It was a fun experience! It could be motivating but totally unhealthy.


    • You sure are. For birthdays and holidays (true special occasions) I tend to take a middle ground – one or two treats with lots of healthy options. I’ll never be one who bans all treats!!


  11. I’m not sure what its like in schools now, but I don’t remember getting much candy when I was in school. And lunches didn’t seem all that unhealthy. I’ve heard now they give really small portions and kids leave the lunchroom still hungry.


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