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School & Industry Fight for "Right" to Sell Junk Foods to Students

Commercial Alert September 9, 2001

Following is today's New York Times article about state legislative
efforts to stop the aggressive marketing of junk food to schoolchildren.

http://www.nytimes.com/2001/09/09/education/09FOOD.html?pagewanted=all

Some States Fight Junk Food Sales in Schools
By Greg Winter

For countless American children, breakfast or lunch drops out of a
vending machine at school: a can of soda, perhaps, washing down a
chocolate bar or a bag of potato chips.

Now, a growing number of states are striking back, trying to curb the
rise in childhood obesity by placing strict limits on the sale of candy,
soft drinks and fatty snacks in schools. Nearly a dozen states are
considering legislation to turn off school vending machines during class
time, strip them of sweets or impose new taxes on soft drinks to pay for
teacher salaries and breakfast programs.

In California, legislators appear close to passing a law that would
prohibit any drinks but milk, water or juice from being sold in
elementary schools, and curtail the hours older students can fuel up at
vending machines. In Hawaii, legislators are pushing to oust sodas from
school machines altogether. And in North Carolina, lawmakers are calling
for a moratorium on soft-drink contracts that pay schools to dot their
halls with soda machines.

The wave of legislation, unusual both for its breadth and its
assertiveness, grew out of the newest statistics on child obesity from
the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Teenagers today are
almost three times as likely to be overweight as they were 20 years ago,
the agency announced this year, prompting many lawmakers to take aim at
the junk food they believe is to blame.

"We have a crisis on our hands," said Martha Escutia, a state senator
who sponsored California's bill, adding that 50 percent of children are
overweight in some of the state's school districts. "It can't help when
a child is eating chips and soda at 8 in the morning."

The food industry says children need more exercise, not fewer choices.
The bills have also angered school administrators nationwide,
intensifying an already heated debate over the prevalence of commercial
interests in the education system.

Once little more than a novelty in schools, vending machines have become
a principal source of extra money for districts across the nation,
bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars for extracurricular
activities each year. With dozens of machines lining their hallways,
some schools annually earn $50,000 or more in commissions, then use the
money for marching bands, computer centers and field trips that might
otherwise fall by the wayside.

To keep such programs going, schools are emerging as the staunchest
opponents of the proposed restrictions, invoking the same principles of
local control that the states themselves use to fight federal standards
for academic testing. In many cases, the resistance from schools has
been vociferous enough to water down or defeat measures, or at least
stall them until the next legislative session rolls around.

"Let the parents, the students and the school community sit down and
decide how to handle this," said Robert E. Meeks, legislative director
for the Minnesota School Boards Association, which has organized against
legislation to curtail soda sales. Mr. Meeks added that Minnesota
schools earn roughly $40 million a year from vending machines.

"The states only seem to be interested in local control when it suits
them," he said.

Many lawmakers say they find it odd that educators are their biggest
foes, considering that the schools are supposed to look after the
welfare of their students.

"I can understand why school districts go in search of extra resources,"
said Jaime L. Capelo Jr., a state representative in Texas who introduced
a measure to pare down the amount of junk food in schools. "But it's
shameful when they obtain additional resources through contracts with
soda companies with little or no regard to the health of their
students."

Even some students express concern over the abundance of snack foods in
their schools. Nell S. Geiser, a 17-year-old senior at New Vista High
School in Boulder, Colo., says the vending machines in the building
never shut down. At 7:30 a.m., outside classrooms with corporate symbols
like I.B.M. painted on the walls, she says her fellow students gather in
front of the humming machines, comparing schedules on daily planners
with logos of the WB network, courtesy of a local television station.

"Plenty of kids make their breakfast from a Mountain Dew and a bag of
Doritos," said Nell, who organizes fellow students to oppose soda
contracts in schools. "You're brought up thinking it's all right to be
constantly bombarded with ads and junk food because they're in your
school."

Educators, in turn, say that it is the lawmakers who are hypocritical,
because as tax revenues sag in tandem with the economy, state
legislatures are cutting school budgets, leaving districts with few
choices but to search for substitute funds.

"Maybe it's not the best way of making money," said Paul D. Houston,
executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.
"But who is responsible for providing funding for schools? The very
people who are now saying that we can't engage in creative ways of
raising money."

Though they are often sympathetic to the economic woes of school
districts, many lawmakers argue that encouraging children to indulge at
an early age is ultimately fiscally irresponsible. As students become
heavier and their health deteriorates, more serious ailments like
diabetes can arise, leading to higher health care costs over time.

"What's a root canal cost? How about treating osteoporosis?" said Gene
Pelowski, a Minnesota state representative and high school history
teacher who is seeking to scale back soda sales in school. Mr. Pelowski
said that he got the idea from his local dental association, which has
been sending school principals posters comparing the acidity of Coke,
Pepsi and battery acid, and suggesting that teachers drop
baby teeth into beakers of soda to let students watch them decay. "If we
don't monitor certain illnesses early, society pays," Mr. Pelowski said.

The Department of Agriculture tried to ban soda and candy sales in
schools more than two decades ago, but was thwarted by a federal appeals
court in 1983 after the National Soft Drink Association challenged the
prohibition. Now, federal regulations simply require schools to turn off
soda and candy machines in the cafeteria during meal times. Those that
sit outside in the hallways can stay on all day.

Several states go further. New York, which, like a handful of other
states, is considering ways to increase exercise in schools, already
prohibits food of "minimal nutritional value" from being sold until
after lunch. New Jersey and Maryland have similar policies. But
lawmakers say that such rules often make little difference.

"They're totally ignored," said Paul G. Pinsky, a state senator in
Maryland and former high school teacher who introduced a bill this year
to switch off vending machines during the school day. "After the sugar
high wore off and they were finished bouncing off the walls, my
students' heads would fall on the desk," he said. "It made it really
difficult to teach."

Part of the problem, legislators say, is that the agreements between
schools and soda companies sometimes deter principals from following
state policy, especially since how much schools make is often tied to
how much they sell.

One 10-year contract that the Pepsi-Cola Company signed in 1997 with the
Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md., stated that "if the
Board of Education actively enforces the policy in which vending
machines are turned off during the school day," the school will not get
its guaranteed commission. But the company is now taking a more
conciliatory stand. Officials of Pepsi, a unit of PepsiCo, say they have
redrawn the contract and others like it over the last year, so that they
reflect what the company calls the "spirit and the letter" of state
policies.

In other states, legislators question whether schools have disregarded
state guidelines simply by allowing soda machines on campus.

In recent years, North Carolina schools have signed vending contracts
with soft drink companies, even though the state's official policy
allows only sales that "contribute to the nutritional well-being of the
child and aid in establishing good food habits."

"It's a bit of a conflict, isn't it?" said Ellie G. Kinnaird, a state
senator in North Carolina who is seeking a moratorium on soft drink
contracts in schools.

Six months ago, the Coca-Cola Company said that it would scale back on
binding contracts with schools and offer other beverages in its
machines. But the new guidelines do not pertain to existing contracts,
and may not affect future ones either.

"At the end of the day it's a decision that has to be made by the local
bottler and the school,"` said William B. Marks, a Coca-Cola spokesman.

On average, Americans drink nearly 60 gallons of soda each year, almost
8 gallons more than they did just 10 years ago. For many lawmakers, it
is a given that the increase has worsened childhood obesity. To the food
industry, assigning the blame to any one type of food is simplistic.

"There are no such things as good foods and bad foods," said Chip Kunde,
a legislative director for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, a food
industry trade group. "There are just good diets and bad diets."

Researchers vacillate, pointing out that children are eating more of
almost everything, not just sweets, while exercising less.

In fact, only 29 percent of students attended daily physical education
classes in 1999, compared with 42 percent in 1991, according to the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, making it harder for them to
burn off the extra calories they have put on.

<---article ends here---->
WHAT YOU CAN DO:
Contact your state legislators. Ask them to introduce and support state
legislation to restrict the marketing and sale of junk food in your
state's public schools.

For more information about the marketing of junk food in the schools,
and how to stop it, see Commercial Alert's website at
<http://www.commercialalert.org> or call 503.235.8012.


Commercial Alert's mission is to keep the commercial culture within its
proper sphere, and to prevent it from exploiting children and subverting
the higher values of family, community, environmental integrity and
democracy.

Commercial Alert's materials are distributed electronically via our
mailing list <commercial-alert@lists.essential.org>. To subscribe, go to
<http://lists.essential.org/mailman/listinfo/commercial-alert> or send
the word "subscribe" to <alert@essential.org>.

PLEASE DISTRIBUTE WIDELY
--
Gary Ruskin | gary@essential.org
Commercial Alert | http://www.commercialalert.org
Congressional Accountability Project | http://www.congressproject.org
phone: 503.235.8012 | fax: 503.235.5073


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