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Coke booted from Chicago Schools

Chicago schools banish soft drinks; what does Freeport School Dist. think?

By Matt Richmond
Nov 15, 2004

The Journal-Standard

When the contract between Chicago Public Schools and Coca-Cola - a contract which made Coke the exclusive soft drink provider for the nation's third-largest school district - expires Nov. 15, it will not be renewed, ending a five-year working relationship. Citing concerns about student health, CPS announced in April that it would eliminate soda sales in its schools in an effort to limit childhood obesity among its students.

A handful of the nation's largest school districts are establishing new health policies that forbid or restrict carbonated soft drinks sales in America's public schools. As the trend grows, smaller districts are beginning to follow suit.

School districts in northwestern Illinois vary widely in their methods, but they're all making efforts to balance their reliance on revenue from soft drink sales and the demand for soda against the growing problem of obesity.

On Oct. 27, the Chicago school board announced it had authorized a new contract with a distributorship in Northlake for juice, water and Gatorade in its vending machines, despite the fact that the Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Chicago offered juices, water and sports drinks as part of its "Your Power to Choose" program.

"It wasn't trying to get rid of Coke the company," said Michael Vaughn, deputy press secretary for CPS. "It was an effort to offer our students healthier beverages than what we have now."

Vaughn said his office was not made aware of the "Your Power to Choose" program, and that Coke was as welcome as any other company to submit a new proposal when the district announced its new health-focused policy.

"I don't know if they submitted a new proposal," Vaughn said.

Coke did, but it was not the proposal the district chose. And while the reasons for the change could have been better prices, better service or just a whim, Gary Ruskin of the non-profit political organization Commercial Alert thinks there's more to it.

"Keeping Coke in their schools would be keeping the camel's nose under the tent," said Ruskin, who, with Ralph Nader, co-founded Commercial Alert, which holds as its mission the prevention of commercial culture's exploitation of children. "Public health folks are concerned that if the camel's nose stays under the tent, we'd see an eventual return to aggressive junk food marketing.

"(Coke) is a company that is famous for foisting its high-sugar soda pop on our nation's children despite its health effects. (It's) not the kind of corporation to invite into schools."

With the number of overweight school children on the rise - from 5.7 percent of children between ages 6 and 18 in 1980 to 15.3 percent in 2000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - people are looking for reasons. Many point to carbonated soft drink consumption.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, in a policy statement published in January, stated that the regular consumption of carbonated soft drinks are likely to cause weight problems, calcium deficiency and dental problems in school-age children. The findings supported similar studies previously published in The Lancet and the British Medical Journal.

In the most recent edition of "The Achiever," the U.S. Board of Education's newsletter, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige cited "consumption of soda," as one of the reasons growing numbers of American schoolchildren are unhealthy. He announced a new initiative called "Schools for a Healthier U.S. Challenge," focused on healthy eating and exercise.

In the report cited above, the American Academy of Pediatrics stated that, beyond merely making soda available to kids, "contracts with school districts for exclusive soft drink rights encourage consumption directly and indirectly." The academy went on to recommend that school boards establish a "clearly defined, district-wide policy that restricts the sale of soft drinks."

As a result of such attention, school districts and state governments across the nation are moving to change the drinking habits of schoolchildren. The states of Maine and Texas have each banned soda and junk foods from their schools statewide. And public school districts in New York City, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco and Nashville have all made similar moves.

Public and political support for removing soft drinks from schools has grown rapidly, said Ruskin of Commercial Alert, which has addressed the issue since it was founded in 1998. The new support, Ruskin said, is mostly made up of "really angry parents."

"(Parents) feel like school board members have been incompetent in supporting the health of Coke and Pepsi's bottom lines over the health of their children," Ruskin said. "(Disapproval of) marketing in our schools is uniting people from across the political spectrum," said Ruskin. "Not only have we seen massive support, we're winning victories statewide and locally."

As examples, Ruskin cited Seattle's public school district, where progressive activists led the charge that recently voted four new members to its school board based on their opposition to the marketing of junk food. Meanwhile, conservative Texas Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs, led the movement in favor of anti-soda legislation in that state.

"It's time for some creative thinking about how to fund our schools without corroding our students' health," said Ruskin.

As the nation's largest school districts take high-profile stands against carbonated soft drinks, smaller districts are faced with the question of whether or not to do the same.

The Illinois State Board of Education offers little in terms of guidelines. The ISBE addresses soda sales in regards to the National School Lunch Program, prohibiting the sale of foods of "minimal nutritional value," as defined by the U.S.D.A., during lunch periods at participating schools.

"Other than that we recommend schools and districts provide healthy food options," said Naomi Greene, a spokesperson for the ISBE. The state board, however, offers no specific guidelines.

As such, districts are free to develop their own policies.

First, districts must decide what products to offer. Some area districts have contracts that grant exclusive soda sales to one company: Freeport has an exclusivity contract with Pepsi, as do Orangeville and Warren. Galena, Mount Carroll and Oregon signed with Coke.

Savanna's school district has taken advantage of both companies' eagerness to sell their products in schools, signing an exclusivity contract with Coke for its high school and with Pepsi for its Chestnut Park kindergarten-through-eighth-grade facility. As a result, Coca-Cola's name can be seen on the high school football scoreboard, while Pepsi is on the new scoreboards in the grade school gym.

Other districts reserve the right to offer its students competitive brands, but in doing so forgo the signing bonuses that often come with such contracts, such as Freeport's $91,000 yearly premium payment from Pepsi or, more commonly, a new scoreboard.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first installment in a two-part series about the local response to child obesity and one of its contributors - carbonated soft drinks.