Sunday, January 30, 2000

Cola deals with schools draw critics

The Associated Press

        TOLEDO — The 70-year-old football stadium needs a serious fix-up. The textbooks are getting worn and outdated. New computers would be nice, too.

        It's no wonder Toledo school administrators thought they struck gold when Coca-Cola offered the district $4.5 million to become its exclusive soda seller during the next 10 years.

        “All we have to do is figure out how to spend the money,” said Joe Kahl, the district's purchasing director.

        Just in the past few months, dozens of cash-strapped school districts around the country have made similar deals with soft-drink companies, extending a trend that began about five years ago.

Windfall varies
        The amount of money involved ranges from as little as $100,000 to the $43 million Coke offered the Philadelphia School District.

        In Michigan, 35 districts from seven counties near Lansing signed a deal with Pepsi and the American Bottling Co., makers of 7-Up, worth $37 million.

        “It's a two-way situation, because we're looking for new ways to connect with young people,” said PepsiCo spokesman Dave DeCecco. “And what we're doing can save a foreign language class or save an arts class.”

        As the deal-making increases, so do attacks from nutritionists and groups opposed to commercial advertising in schools.

        “It's simply crazy for schools to encourage kids to drink more sugar water,” said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit health-advocacy group.

        “Schools usually teach health, and so it's purely hypocritical for them to put soda machines right in the hallways,” he said.

        Andrew Hagelshaw of the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education said at least 150 districts had deals with soda companies as of last summer.

        By entering into exclusive contracts, schools are endorsing one brand over another, he said.

        “These machines are 8-foot-high neon billboards,” Mr. Hagelshaw said. “While students are in school, they're basically a captive audience.

        “The profits they envision is a lifetime of loyalty among these students.”

        Lee Scott, a spokesman for Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of the Eastern Great Lakes, acknowledged that school soda machines are not big moneymakers.

        “We expect to recoup the costs; but I'm not going to say these deals are enormously profitable for us, because they're not,” Mr. Scott said.

No logos in classrooms
        Both Coke and Pepsi say they are careful not to take their logos into the classroom. Coke, for example, has set up computer labs in some schools and given laptop computers for teachers, but there are no Coke screen savers or mouse pads.

        Pepsi officials emphasized that schools have final control over contract details, such as the number and locations of vending machines. Many of the contracts stipulate that only water or fruit drinks can be sold in elementary schools.

        “We're not out to turn the schools into a Pepsi billboard,” Mr. DeCecco said. “We never interfere with a school's general course of study. You won't see kids in math class counting Pepsi cans.”

        Soda vending machines may have been unthinkable when today's parents were children. But, the cola companies contend, they have been in schools for quite a while.

        The Philadelphia school district's contract with Coke calls for the number of vending machines in school buildings to double to more than 1,300.

        The Toledo contract with Coke allows the schools to get more money if soda sales exceed expectations. School and company officials work together to place vending machines in high-profile areas where there are after-school activities.

        Opponents note that at least 30 school districts have rejected soft-drink contracts, and at least one district is rethinking its decision.

        The schools in Madison, Wis., are in the final year of a three-year contract with Coke. Although the school board approved that deal, some members are now against it.

        Board President Carol Carstensen said she is rethinking her support because “there was great unease in the community.”

        “Nutritionally, I know pop machines aren't great,” she said. “But as a parent I've learned to adjust, and I know kids are going to drink pop.”


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