Saturday, October 05, 2002

School districts weigh pop policy

Administrators claim revenues fund extracurricular activities

By Anna Guido
Enquirer contributor

        Tristate educators say a recent decision by the Los Angeles School District to ban the sale of soft drinks was a bold move. But don't expect any local districts to follow the lead of the nation's second-largest school district in trying to promote healthier diets among its students.

        They can't afford to. While many districts have taken steps to restrict the sale of soft drinks and junk food to students, none of a dozen or so schools surveyed is prepared to sever profitable supplier contracts.

        In Milford Schools, for example, junior high and high school soft drink machines generate $12,000 to $14,000 annually for the athletic department, district spokeswoman Valerie Miller said. The machines are on all day, but students are not permitted to drink the carbonated beverages in class.

        Soft drinks also are sold in the high school's cafeteria.

        “Regardless of how much we want them to eat apples and other healthy foods, teenagers will eat what they want to eat,” Ms. Miller said. “We're just happy that they're eating anything.”

        In Lakota Local School District, soft drink and snack machines are available in grades 7-12 but most are not accessible during lunch. Soft drinks, however, are available in the 9-12 cafeteria lines.

        The district, which has a 13-year contract with Coca-Cola Co., generates about $50,000 a year from vending proceeds, said athletic director Stu Eversole.

        “Athletically, it's been a very positive financial step for us,” Mr. Eversole said. “Without the revenue, it would put a severe debt in the financial resources of our athletic program.”

  While Tristate schools are reluctant to remove soft drinks from their buildings, many are taking stronger measures to encourage good nutrition in the lunchrooms.
  In Milford, school administrators are planning to offer a more balanced diet when four new elementary schools with their own full-service kitchens open next year and in 2004.
  At Lakota, many nutrient-empty snacks were removed from all cafeterias. The district also has a debit card payment system that gives parents some control over what their children buy. Parents can deposit as much money as they wish for lunch, and any amount or none at all for snacks.
  In Covington, a school snack shop that sold treats was closed in an attempt to encourage students to go through the cafeteria line for a nutritious lunch.
        About half of the nation's schools districts have vending machine contracts with soft drink companies to help fund extracurricular activities. Local examples include Cincinnati Public, Covington, Lakota, Mason, Milford, New Miami and Princeton.

        In Los Angeles, the district approved a resolution Aug. 27 to ban soft drink sales during school hours on all 677 campuses. As of January 2004, only “approved beverages” (fruit-based drinks, milk, electrolyte beverages, etc.) can be sold in vending machines and cafeterias during the school day.

        “Research has shown that an extra soft drink a day increases a child's risk for obesity by 60 percent,” the resolution states. It also notes that a study of ninth- and 10th-grade girls found those who drank colas were three times more likely to develop bone fractures.

        Although educators and legislators have long grappled with how to promote student health, few districts have banned soft drink sales.

        Cincinnati Public Schools, the Tristate's largest school district, does not allow its 42,000 students to have carbonated beverages with meals, although vending machines exist in a handful of cafeterias.

        Renie Kelly, director of building operations and foods services, said the machines are used heavily after school and at extracurricular events.

        At New Miami in Butler County, athletic director and assistant principal Brad Hunt said he agrees “kids at times drink too much pop.” But, he added, “If we would ban pop from the school, our athletic department would go down the tubes. The pop machines (in the athletic hallway and teachers' lounge) bring in a third of the athletic department budget.”

        In the meantime, students' health is at stake. Since the 1970s, obesity in teens has tripled-from 5 percent to 15 percent.

        Childhood obesity-related diseases in the United States have also grown. Type 2 diabetes, for example, was rarely seen in juveniles a decade ago.

        Today, Children's Hospital Medical Center reports about 20 new cases each year of Type 2 diabetes in teens 13-16, compared to one case or less 10 years ago, said Dr. Stephen Daniels, a pediatric cardiologist known for his work in obesity and children's health.

        Dr. Daniels blames the increase on diets that are overly reliant on soft drinks and junk food, along with increased sedentary behavior.

        “I view the vending machines and schools as one part of a much bigger picture,” Dr. Daniels said. “But we need to help kids by not constantly putting them in positions where they have to make difficult choices.”

        In Mason schools, fountain soft drinks in the cafeteria line are available for grades 4-12 only if students buy a “qualified meal,” which includes an entrie with a healthy drink or side dish.

        Mason food service supervisor Darlene Hicks said the district must follow this rule to remain a participant in the National School Lunch Program for free and reduced-price lunches.

        Mason also has soft drinks in vending machines. Like most other schools surveyed, Mason's soft drink contract is handled through the athletic department.

        At Princeton, Superintendent Donald Darby said that despite a contract with Coke, the district refused to turn on soft drink machines at lunch.

        "The machines are on timers," Mr. Darby said. "They come on about 15 minutes past the school day."

        Princeton received $136,000 up front from Coke for a 10-year contract, and receives 40 percent of all sales ($18,000 last year)from the machines.

        In Kentucky, state law governs the use of vending machines in public schools, said Covington Schools food service director Phyllis Martin. Vending machines can only be turned on 30 minutes after the final lunch period.

        Covington's contract with Coke generates about $20,000 a year from vending machines at Holmes High School, Principal Bob Grein said. In the elementary schools, machines are placed only in teachers' lounges.

        Kentucky Lt. Gov. Steve Henry, a medical doctor who is running for governor, is making childhood obesity and sugary snacks and drinks a campaign issue. He has visited Northern Kentucky schools to teach students about nutrition.

        Even with a strong foundation of good nutrition, some argue that children and teens should not be forced to choose between milk or water and soft drinks.

        Food industry officials disagree.

        “By keeping foods and beverages away from children, we're suggesting that there is a simple solution to this complex problem,” said Robert Birgfeld, a spokesman for Grocery Manufacturers of America, based in Washington.

        “It's not about stripping them of their choices, but of how to make good choices and in moderation.”

        Heath and nutrition experts, however, don't believe good decisions are being made.

        “Lifestyle behaviors learned early in life have a significant impact on length and quality of life in later years,” said William E. Werner, executive director of the American Cancer Society, Southwest Ohio Division.

        Mr. Werner cites statistics from the American Cancer Society and Ohio Department of Health that link 30 percent of all cancer deaths to diet/obesity. “We need to work with the people who work with our kids and make them cognizant of the fact that that these things really mean a lot to children later in life,” Mr. Werner said.

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