Junk food shouldn’t be used as reward or incentive within public schools (or at home!)

We have a severe health crisis on our hands here in United States.


Over the last 30 years, obesity rates have more than doubled in children and have quadrupled in adolescents.

30 percent of children age 6-19 are currently overweight or obese, and that figure climbs to as high as 50 percent in lower-income school districts (Lee & Sprague 1). Of course, an obese child is 69 percent more likely to become an obese adult, which significantly increases their risk for developing over 30 chronic health issues[i] (AOTA). Obesity-related health care costs are now at 169 billion per year: a hefty financial burden that strains the resources of families, taxpayers, and government-funded services (Obesity Society).

In addition, there has been a significant increase in neurologically based learning disabilities[ii] among children and adolescents over the same time span.

The number of children receiving services for learning disabilities nearly doubled between 1975 and 2011. Approximately 5 percent of students enrolled in public schools have a neurological disability diagnosis—not to mention the number of children left undiagnosed and untreated, struggling to learn (NCLD 12). These higher disability rates threaten the financial stability of future generations and current generations as we continue to age; disabled children grow into disabled adults who may or may not have the ability to work and pay taxes. According to the State of Learning Disabilities 2014 report, poor nutrition is a major contributing factor to the higher incidences of learning disabilities among low-income families (3).

To shift these health epidemics in a more positive direction, new strategies focused on prevention and early-life intervention are of prime focus. 

As an overwhelming body of literature demonstrates, both obesity and neurological dysfunction are either supported or exacerbated by nutrition and lifestyle habits.

Children are influenced by multiple factors. Some factors, such as media advertisements and peer interactions are more difficult for parents to control, so it is critical that children receive health-supportive modeling and messaging from adults and society as a whole. Many people believe that this health behaviors modeling should rest solely on the shoulders of parents, yet nutritionists and public health experts believe that schools–the place where children spend the bulk of their time–play an equally large role in helping children adopt and maintain healthy eating and physical activity habits (CDC 5).

While very basic nutrient standards and sugar limits exist for U.S. school lunch programs, many school districts still allow high-sugar junk food rewards and incentives to be used within the classroom.

This practice, often downplayed by sugar-loving school administrators, negatively impacts the physical and cognitive health of school-age children and puts them at risk for lifelong eating issues, such as eating to reward themselves or to simply “feel better.”

According to a study of middle school teachers in the mid-2000s:

  • A whopping 73 percent of teachers surveyed used candy as rewards and incentives within the classroom
  • 34 percent used candy to incentivize students at least 2-3 times per month.
  • Other commonly used items were cookies/donuts (37 percent), sweetened drinks (35 percent), and pizza (28 percent) (Kubic 343).


The overarching goal of this essay is to explore the health implications of using high-sugar/fat, non-nutritive junk food as rewards and/or incentives within public schools.


In addition, I will demonstrate how the practice undermines the healthy modeling that children receive at home, while directly contributing to poor health: physically, cognitively, and psychologically.

While this essay covers a number of causative and contributing factors, it is not intended to provide an exhaustive exploration of the topic, and further essays are sure to follow. To accomplish these initial goals, I have organized this essay into four main sections, one of which has sub-sections.

  1. The first section explores societal underpinnings that have led to the acceptance of junk food rewards.
  2. The second section, which includes sub-sections, discusses the myriad physical and psychological consequences of using junk food rewards and incentives with school-aged children.
  3. The third section proposes alternatives and solutions to help educators and parents move beyond the practice.
  4. The fourth section provides a summary of the common sense factors discussed in the paper, in addition to a call to action for government funded programs that influence the health and wellbeing of children.



The consumption of non-nutritive, processed junk food has become a socially acceptable practice in modern day society. Sugar-laden celebrations are considered the norm, as is “using food to feel better” (like a drug) after a hard or stressful day. These behaviors are adopted during childhood and are directly related to parental or caregiver modeling during formative years (Epel et al. 12). Many adults, classroom teachers included, grew up within these societal norms and expectations, and therefore believe that high-sugar/fat foods qualify as an acceptable form of praise, motivation or demonstration of love for the children they care for.

To compound the issue, teachers in public school systems receive very little funding to support learning motivation and often purchase extrinsic incentives out-of-pocket. Teachers with limited-resources tend to choose sugary, non-nutritive food rewards because they are easy, inexpensive, and may bring about short-term behavior change.


Junk foods compromise cognitive function and good decision-making. Processed foods that are high in sugar and refined carbohydrate flours cause large spikes and dips in blood sugar. For people of all ages, the dips often lead to or exacerbate restlessness, irritability, reduced ability to focus on tasks at hand, and greater likelihood of making poor food choices in the future (Amen 55). These effects are particularly enhanced in children with ADD/ADHD, the most common neurobehavioral disorder of childhood (Schnoll, Burshteyn, and Cea-Aravena 67).

Junk food overconsumption results in ill health and obesity. Policy-makers, and even some dieticians, believe that people who are overweight simply need to “stop being lazy and exercise more.” We have been duped into believing that all calories are equal, regardless of the source, how they’re delivered and the other types of molecules they’re bound to when ingested. The blame and shame of obesity has been conveniently shifted away from food manufacturers and public health regulations and on to consumers, with little regard as to the biochemical processes that occur during digestion, absorption and assimilation. Infants as young as 6 months old are now being diagnosed with obesity (McCormick et al. 1). Are these infants just lazy, too? Hardly.

Consider this: 200 calories from nuts is not the same as 200 calories from candy, a soda, or a donut. In addition to calories, nuts contain fiber, protein, and healthy fats. These molecules metabolize much slower than sugar, trigger very little insulin release, and contribute to a longer-lasting feeling of satiety (fullness). Conversely, 200 calories from sugar comes with little to no protein, fiber, or healthy fat, so this “food” is metabolized very quickly, triggering a rush of insulin—the hormone behind fat storage and diabetes. When sugar is digested without protein, fiber, and healthy fats, it is unlikely that a person will feel satisfied for very long, which results in feeling hungry and eating more within a shorter period of time (along with many other harmful effects, which will be discussed below).

Sugar dysregulates the brain’s reward center, similar to illicit drugs. Recent neuroscience shows that sugar disrupts the biochemical balance within the brain’s reward center by reducing the amount of dopamine—the “feel-good” neurotransmitter of satiety and motivation—circulating in the brain after just 3 weeks of habitual exposure; due to down-regulating the number of dopamine receptors within synapses. Like every other drug of abuse—nicotine, cocaine, alcohol, cannabis, morphine—sugar triggers hedonia, tolerance, and withdrawal symptoms (UCTV-1). When looking at the biochemical processes involved in addiction, sugar and alcohol (ethanol) are almost identical and carry most of the same long-term health risks (Lustig, Schmidt, and Brindis 28). For children with a genetic predisposition to addiction, junk food can quickly become a stimulating, dopamine-triggering drug of abuse (UCTV-2).

Junk foods rewards undermine the healthy behaviors taught in school health classes. Schools are designed to teach and model appropriate behaviors and skills to children. The health and nutrition principles taught by schools are meaningless if contradicted by rewarding children with candy and junk foods.

Rewarding children with unhealthy foods in school undermines our efforts to teach them about good nutrition. It’s like teaching children a lesson on the importance of not smoking, and then handing out ashtrays and lighters to the kids who did the best job listening. –Marlene Schwartz, Ph.D., Deputy Director, Rudd Center for Food Policy an Obesity, Yale University (Connecticut).


Junk foods rewards undermine the healthy behaviors taught by parents at home. For parents who do not advocate the use of junk food rewards at home, the undermining of healthy behavioral modeling without expressed consent can become a source of conflict and frustration. For most children, no amount of healthy eating at home will stop them from eating junk food in school—where they spend the bulk of their day. The temptation is simply too great. For children with food allergies or children who’s parents take a stand against junk food in school and send “special treats” instead, there are myriad psychological implications that arise for the child as result of being left out of food-sharing celebrations, including bullying from peers, anger due to exclusion and lying or stealing to ingest the sugar anyway.


Junk Food Rewards Contribute to Unhealthy Behaviors in Adulthood. “I did good, now I get a cookie!” neural pathways are laid down in childhood. If these behaviors are practiced and reinforced over and over, systematically strengthened by emotional response, they often stick for life. Several studies have shown that using highly palatable food as a reward during childhood dramatically increases the risk for developing eating disorders, such as binge eating and emotional eating in adulthood (Epel et al. 12).


Using food as a reward or as a punishment can undermine the healthy eating habits that you’re trying to teach your children. Giving sweets, chips, or soda as a reward often leads to children overeating foods that are high in sugar, far, and empty calories. Worse, it interferes with kids’ natural ability to regular their eating, and it encourages them to eat when they’re not hungry to reward themselves. –Yale Medical Group (Fedewa, Courtney, and Hinds 4).



Schools can help promote healthy behaviors by offering a variety of zero-and-low-cost reward alternatives, such as: sitting by friends, reading or eating lunch outdoors, receiving “no homework” passes, playing computer games, listening to music, physical activity brain breaks, stickers, pencils, flash cards, or “mystery packs” with a notebook, folder, sports cards, etc. (Michigan 2). For these alternatives to work, a level playing field must be established where all children receive the same rewards, vs. only select children receiving junk food alternatives.

For more ideas on effective, non-food classroom rewards, read the white paper: The Use of Food as a Reward in Classrooms: The Disadvantages and the Alternatives. A link to the white paper can be found in the Works Cited section at the end of this essay (Fedewa, Courtney, and Hinds).



Parents assume that children will not be exposed to toxic water or air at school, and the same should hold true for food: the source of fuel for developing brains and bodies. Public schools are funded by public tax dollars. Therefore, it is the responsibility of schools to create and enforce policies that serve the long-term health and wellbeing of students from a public health perspective that considers long-term factors such as economic repercussions.

Public education is an essential government function, yet many U.S. public schools are underfunded and perpetually budget-strapped. Knowing this, every effort should be made to optimize learning effectiveness using healthy, cost-effective methods. Non-nutritive, high-sugar/fat junk “foods” (although I am hesitant to even use the word “food”) such as candy, soda, donuts and pizza are not the answer. The use of junk foods to reward and incentivize students is an undeniably unhealthy practice. Although many administrators and teachers may be addicted to sugar themselves, this is not an acceptable reason to jeopardize the health of students; especially when doing so undermines parental modeling.

By disallowing the use of junk food rewards and incentives in the classroom, schools have the power to shift long-term health trends, including brain health and learning capacity, in a more positive direction. Taking small, incremental steps to improve healthy behavior modeling at school, where children spend the bulk of their time, will help future generations become healthier, happier, and more successful taxpaying adults who contribute to social service funds, rather than drain them.

Researched and Written By: Linda Driscoll Powers, student of Integrative Mental Health Nursing, Colorado – 5.2015

Learn more about Linda at her professional website: lindadriscoll.wordpress.com

— Footnotes —

[i] Obesity puts individuals at risk for more than 30 chronic health conditions: type 2

diabetes, high cholesterol, hypertension, gallstones, heart disease, fatty liver disease, sleep apnea, GERD, stress incontinence, heart failure, degenerative joint disease, birth defects, miscarriages, asthma and other respiratory conditions, and numerous cancers (Obesity Society).

[ii] Learning disabilities arise from neurological differences in brain structure and function and affect a child’s ability to receive, store, process, retrieve, or communicate information. Common learning disabilities include: ADD, ADHD, Auditory Processing Disorder Dyslexia, Dyscalculia, Dysgraphia, Executive Functioning Deficit, and Visual Processing Deficit (NCLD).

— Works Cited —

Amen M.D., Daniel G. “Change Your Brain, Change Your Body.” Irvine: MindWorks Press. 2009. Book.

AOTA. “Obesity Basics, Childhood Obesity.” American Obesity Treatment Association. (n.d.) Web. 25 Apr. 2015.

CDC. “The Role of Schools in Preventing Childhood Obesity.” The State Education Standard. Dec. 2004. Centers for Disease Control. Web. 25 Apr. 2015.

Connecticut State Department of Education. “Alternatives to Food Rewards.“ May 2005, revised Nov. 2011. Healthymeals.nal.usda.gov. Web. 25 Apr. 2015.

Epel, Elissa S., et al. “The Reward-Based Eating Drive Scale: A Self-Report Index Of Reward-Based Eating.” Plos ONE 9.6 (2014): 1-8. Academic Search Premier. Web. 25 Apr. 2015.

Fedewa, Alicia, Courtney, Anita, Hinds, Casey. “The Use of Food as a Reward in Classrooms: The Disadvantages and the Alternatives.” n.p. 2014. Kyhealthykids.com. Web. 25 Apr. 2015.

Kubik, Martha Y. “Food Related Beliefs, Eating Behavior and Classroom Food Practices of Middle School Teachers.” Journal of School Health. Oct 2002, Vol. 72 Issue 8, p339. 7p. Academic Search Premier. Web. 2 Apr. 2015

Lee , Deborah, Sprague, Nancy. “Point: Public Schools Should not be Permitted to Sell Junk Food to Students.” Points of View: Junk Food in Schools (2015): 2. Points of View Reference Center. Web. 2 Apr. 2015.

Lustig, Robert H., Laura A. Schmidt, and Claire D. Brindis. “Public Health: The Toxic Truth About Sugar.” Nature 482.7383 (2012): 27-29. Academic Search Premier. Web. 25 Apr. 2015.

Mayo Clinic Staff. “Diseases and Conditions, Sleep Apnea, Definition.” Mayo Clinic. 24 Jul. 2012. Web. 25 Apr. 2015.

Michigan State University. “Alternatives to using Food as a Reward.” Michigan State University. n.d. Michigan.gov. Web. 25 Apr. 2015.

NCLD. “The State of Learning Disabilities: Facts, Trends and Emerging Issues.” The National Center for Learning Disabilities. 2014. LD.org. Web. 25 Apr. 2015.

McCormick DP et al. “Infant obesity: are we ready to make this diagnosis?” Journal of Pediatrics 2010 July: 157(1) PubMed. Web. 23 Apr. 2015.

Obesity Society. “What is Obesity.” Obesity Society. Oct. 2014. Web. 25 Apr. 2015.

Schnoll, Roseanne, Dmitry Burshteyn, and Juan Cea-Aravena. “Nutrition In The Treatment Of Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: A Neglected But Important Aspect.” Applied Psychophysiology & Biofeedback 28.1 (2003): 63-75. Academic Search Premier. Web. 25 Apr. 2015.

UCTV-1. ” Sugar – The Bitter Truth.” Online video. YouTube, University of California Television. 30 July 2009. Web. 23 Apr. 2015

UCTV-2. “The Skinny on Obesity (Ep. 4): Sugar – A Sweet Addiction.” Online video clip. YouTube, University of California Television. 3 May 2012. Web. 24 Apr. 2015

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