Bush Education Appointee Will Likely Push Soda Pop in Schools

January 4, 2001
St Paul Pioneer Press

Soda Pop Deals & Bush's Nominee To Run The Education Department
by Marjorie Williams

Rod Paige, George W. Bush's nominee to run the Education Department, has
been praised as a tough administrator who brought a reformist rigor to the
job of superintendent of the Houston schools. But under his tenure, the
Houston Independent School District joined one of the cheesier recent
trends in public education: the boom in exclusive contracts with soft-drink
manufacturers to peddle high-sugar sodas in schools.

The sale of exclusive ``pouring rights'' is perhaps the least wholesome of
all the corporate marketing gimmicks that lately have found their way into
public education. Typically, these contracts require the schools to promise
to sell a certain number of sodas a year. This transforms the school's role
from simple provider of vending machines (can anyone remember that the mere
presence of soda machines in schools was once controversial?) to active
peddler of the sodas.

The agreements specify the number and placement of vending machines and the
number of hours they will be open to kids, pressing as far as possible past
the spirit of federal rules that bar schools from selling sodas in
cafeterias during lunch time, on pain of losing subsidies for their
breakfast and lunch programs. In exchange, schools get everything from new
athletic facilities to scholarship funds.

So while health teachers are instructing kids on the food pyramid, and on
all the malign effects of too much refined sugar, the message beyond the
classroom door is to drink up -- long as you're drinking Coke, or Pepsi, or
whatever brew is paying the bill.

Two years ago, just as the pouring-rights trend was exploding, the Center
for Science in the Public Interest issued a report titled ``Liquid Candy,''
which explains why the schools' surrender on this issue is a signal failure
of their responsibility. Start with the obvious fact that sodas promote
tooth decay and obesity, which is steeply on the rise among American
children. Add in the fact that as soda consumption by teens has roughly
doubled over the past 20 years, their consumption of milk has dropped by
almost half. ``One of the biggest dietary changes in teen-agers is that 20
years ago, teen-agers were drinking almost twice as much milk as soda
pop,'' says Michael Jacobson, executive director of CSPI. ``Now they're
drinking twice as much soda pop as milk. That is particularly of concern in
teen-age girls, who should be developing bone mass, so they won't develop
osteoporosis later.''

The center estimates the average teen exceeds his or her recommended intake
of refined sugar every day with the consumption of sodas -- alone -- before
you add in whatever other sugars that person may be consuming.

School districts in San Francisco and Seattle have explicitly banned
contracts with soda makers. But elsewhere the practice is spreading fast.
The Center for Commercial-Free Public Education estimates pouring-rights
contracts roughly doubled in 1998 alone, from about 50 to 110 school
districts. Andrew Hagelshaw, the center's senior program director, told a
researcher that the agreements are ``happening so fast we can't keep track
of them.''

It may not be fair to single out Houston, which last year signed a contract
with Coca-Cola worth a little more than $5 million over five years. At
least they didn't emulate their brethren in the Grapevine-Colleyville
School District, further north in Texas, where officials sold space on a
high school's rooftop for Dr. Pepper ads that could be seen by planes
landing at the nearby Dallas-Fort Worth airport. Or in Colorado Springs,
where a district administrator panicked over his school system's failure to
meet Coke's annual soda quota. ``Fast Food Nation,'' a new book by
journalist Eric Schlosser, quotes a memo in which this official listed ways
schools might up their consumption, including letting students bring their
Cokes to class.

But the team of Bush and Paige does have a striking chance to show what it
values. Bush claims to be passionately committed both to public education
and to the rights of business. But here is an area where these two
priorities are clearly in conflict. A Republican president, with his
secretary of education, could plausibly hope to shame American educators
and school boards out of their dependence on the soda subsidy. Unless he
puts a higher value on the great American freedom to develop brand loyalty
among 13-year-olds. I'm not holding my breath.

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